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Published on December 15th, 2015 | from CAMH

Refugee Mental Health

By Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist, Work, Stress and Health Program, CAMHKaty-Kamkar

The status, safety and health of refugees has become a growing topic on everyone’s minds and hearts, especially with the plight of Syria, and its effects on people who are displaced due to violence and unrest.

For adults and children who seek refuge, it is important to be mindful of not only their medical needs but also their mental health concerns. We need to expect increasing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Refugees have experienced numerous losses – for starters, they are already dealing with the loss of their homeland, their way of life, and the safety and security of their homes. But these are not the only issues they have to face. They have incurred financial losses, which many may never recover from. Their careers are likely severely affected, while children’s education may be put on hold for indefinite amounts of time. Most devastating are the loss of loved ones, families, relatives, friends, colleagues or neighbours.

Most, if not all, have likely gone through many of these losses and thus experience grief and mourning.

The pain that comes with loss and grief is compounded by the horror of having experienced, witnessed or confronted a range of upsetting and traumatic events including war, torture, death, danger, threats and violence.

We can expect many to suffer a range of mental health symptoms. Some common mental health symptoms include:

  • Distressing, intrusive thoughts, images and flashbacks of the traumas they went through;
  • Nightmares and disturbed sleep, waking up shaking or screaming;
  • Feeling hyper-vigilant or on guard for signs of threat or danger with constant fear of something bad happening;
  • Experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, feeling restless, abdominal distress, high blood pressure, changes in appetite or sleep;
  • Hopeless feelings that nothing will ever change, which could also lead to suicidal ideations;
  • Feeling helpless and powerless; beliefs of not having control over anything;

The uncertainty of their situation understandably leads to increased anxiety, tension, negative feelings, and feelings of helplessness. Just thinking and worrying about “what is going to happen to me and my family?” can be overwhelming and terrifying, and these feelings are not restricted to adults. Children experience all of the above, in addition to displaying fear, withdrawal, crying, and bed-wetting. The need to re-establish a sense of normalcy, safety and security for their children is also important. Parents will wish for their children to return to school to regain their education and for their children to feel hopeful again.

Refugees have gone through a lot, and resilience has certainly played a big part in their survival. In fact, there is a chance that the rates of mental health concerns might be lower than expected despite undergoing tremendous adversity due to resilient ways of coping. However, we must be ready to support those who will still need our help.

This website pertains to the Refugee Mental Health Project, a follow-up of the national Refugee Mental Health Practices Study identifying needs and practices in refugee mental health in Canada. Among other helpful information and resources within this website, it also provides a Refugee Mental Health Toolkit, including wealth of information on mental health related resources for refugees.

A mental health strategy for refugees’ mental health is of utmost importance. A strategy that would help organize a plan for instilling, among other things, safety, security and stability; social support/groups and networks; housing and food and warmth; language services, education and employment to help regain financial stability, a sense of mastery, a sense of belonging, autonomy, independence and productivity; and access to community mental health resources, group therapies, and mental health professionals and physicians.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by user Haeferl

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