Refugees & Mental Health: A Neglected Crisis

By: Adam Varoqua

We’re at a time in world history where global conflict has largely decreased over the decades. Even still, there are millions of refugees and displaced people as a result of ongoing conflict. Refugees have left their war torn communities for survival for themselves and their families. As a result of their abrupt upheavals, many have gone through starvation, hunger, poverty, abuse, separation from loved ones and many other crises. These detriments to human prosperity are also life stressors, influencing the mental health of refugees.

We tend not to look at refugee crises through a mental health lens but it’s a perspective that can’t be ignored. The stressors associated with a being refugee influences a person’s mental mindsight, thereby leading to mental health illnesses such as PTSD, depression, recurring panic attacks, and high stress levels that can lead to worse health outcomes overall. This contributes to horrible health conditions that impacts a person’s daily functioning in life, making it harder to rebuild their lives after an abrupt change in their circumstances. For example, the leading cause of the most years lost in the world due to disability is depression (Smith, 2014).

It has been reported that PTSD is especially common among settled refugees, with a range of 10-40% having this disorder (Refugeehealthta, 2011). Child refugees are not immune as well with 50-90% suffering from depression. Many others face emotional disorders and high rates of depression and stress are common throughout different age groups of refugees. This holds especially true for refugees who witnessed the horrors of war, such as violence, rape, or torture.

What contributes to this gloomy picture of mental health in refugee communities is the lack of access to adequate health care facilities’, cultural biases in regards to mental health, language barriers between caregivers and refugees, the host country exhibiting racism to the newcomers, and other issues. The lack of access to mental health care is notably common as the host countries may not have enough resources to provide adequate services to refugees who need it.

While the present situation looks bleak, there are steps being done to help combat the mental health issues faced in refugee communities. There has been a start of psychological research that investigates refugees’ mental health that can hopefully be used in effective mental health policy decisions. Helping refugees transition into the workforce of their host countries will also prove to be effective as it makes it easier to receive mental health treatment when they’re employed.

A marvelous solution has been proposed by Psychiatrist Malek Bajbouj, a doctor of Syrian descent who has himself opened a mental health clearing center for refugees called the Arab Outpatient Centre in Germany. He is making an Arabic language version of the app PTSD coach which provides the user to make a personal mental health emergency plan and strategies to combat stress.

What will help tremendously is providing more mental health resources’ for refugees and combating the stigma of being both a refugee and having a mental illness too. Actions like those above can be translated into far-reaching policy choices that can help many. In the end, it’s important to recognize the mental health perspective of refugees to better address the concerns faced by displaced people daily.

The responsibility to help refugees in this matter not only falls to policy makers but to NGOs as well. As an NGO focused on refugee rights and their well-being, GERA is committed to helping refugees in all areas of life, including the mental health sphere. GERA does this by working with local, state, and federal officials to enact better policies and educating the public about issues that refugees face on a constant basis.

Adam Varoqua is a Seton Hall undergraduate majoring in Psychology and Anthropology. Adam is a part of many clubs on campus, including GERA-SHU where he serves as Secretary. Currently he is interning for GERA and plans to work with refugee resettlement and global health policies in the future.