Throughout the month of May, in several countries around the world, people have been raising awareness about individuals living with mental health disorders, in an effort to help reduce the stigma often associated with them, thereby increasing access to mental health resources. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 1 billion people live with a mental health disorder and someone commits suicide every 40 seconds, but over 75% of these people receive no treatment for their conditions.
The fact that migrants and refugees experience trauma and suffer from mental health issues may seem obvious to most, but their sources of trauma can be less evident. Additionally, their migratory status can create obstacles to accessing mental health resources, which in turn hinders their ability to learn and integrate. According to international organizations such as UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee, and experts such as Dr. Jacqueline Bhabha, there are many elements of the migratory experience that can have a negative impact on mental health. Some of these include:
Not believing age descriptions
Prolonged periods of arbitrary detention
Being in a position of “radical otherness” and marginalization
Intrusive police presence and police brutality
Being held in solitary confinement without access to food, water or light
Being separated from family and caregivers
Inability to realize one’s rights due to policy gaps
Policy and practice inconsistencies that further limit resources
Fear of contact with state authorities
Obligation to limit improbable expectations of career opportunities, regardless of motivation, goals, education or skills
Daily threat of deportation
Inadequate child supervision that can result in things like bullying and severe anxiety
Accusatorial interrogations in intimidating locations, such as courtrooms and detention centers
These are all situations that unaccompanied minors and young refugees have experienced during the migratory process in receiving countries, including Australia, France, Greece, and the United States. Most are imposed by officials who are meant to protect vulnerable child migrants and refugees. Push factors (i.e., the reason why a migrant or refugee had to leave his or her home country in the first place) should also be added to this list, as should the abysmal conditions faced by those who are forcibly returned to countries like Libya, where human rights violations are committed regularly. These factors can cause and increase conditions such as low self-esteem, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You’re a nobody in society.”
“Only when I have documents can I say that I will be complete.”
(as cited in Bhabha, 2014)
Until these children and young people are no longer forced into a “state of exception,” which can make them feel as though they are less than and increase marginalization, their mental health will continue to suffer. The quotes above were taken from a young Brazilian and a young Afghan in the United States and in England. They exemplify how the grey area that so many migrants and refugees are forced to live in takes its toll on self-esteem and mental health.
This is the harsh reality for many children and young people in migratory situations who lack access to mental health resources. Some are so in need of help that they turn to dangerous alternatives and sometimes to suicide. Although in many Western countries, legal measures are in place which should guarantee access to these resources, this is largely determined by their immigration status, rather than their actual needs. There is also often a lack of communication as young migrants and refugees are not told they are entitled to mental health resources and how to access them.
Speaking openly about mental health is a way to reduce stigma around psychological disorders and resources, and help people in need feel more comfortable asking for help. However, for such a vulnerable population to be reached, more must be done. Governments must make children’s rights a priority and ensure that unaccompanied minors and young refugees are informed of their right to access these resources. More mental health and education professionals should be trained on issues surrounding cultural sensitivity and trauma. When needed, well-trained interpreters should be used, and these resources should not only be available to newly arrived migrants and refugees, but they should also be integrated in schools and state child service facilities and accessible long term, to help promote safe and positive integration. Only by effectively addressing these issues and prioritizing mental health, will we give these children and young people the chance they deserve to live healthy, productive, happy lives.