Refugee Mental Health

Refugee girl with a suitcase walking on the long road on the cou

Did you know one in three asylum seekers experiences a severe mental health disorder? Understanding their mental-health needs is a critical part of community care coordination for refugees and the resettlement agencies that serve them

This blog is part of a series addressing mental health issues in a variety of communities. Consider checking out our other articles on minority mental health, homelessness mental health, and men and mental health

Refugee Mental Health

Did you know about one in three refugees experiences a severe mental health disorder? Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are common for those forced to leave their countries. Unfortunately, these obstacles often continue to affect many refugees, even after resettlement. That’s why refugee mental health is a critical part of resettlement.

Refugees are at high risk for experiencing stressful situations before, during, and after the resettlement process. Without comprehensive physical and behavioral healthcare, refugees may struggle to remain healthy. In turn, lack of good health hampers their ability to work, attend school, or take care of their families. That’s why comprehensive care can help pave the way to successful resettlement. 

Understanding the Refugee Resettlement Journey

It’s not hard to imagine how refugees are exposed to situations that can affect their mental health at all stages of the resettlement process, including:

  • Pre-Migration
    Depending on where a refugee is coming from, they may have been exposed to violence, persecution, and even death. Dealing with such conflict can be traumatizing enough, but on top of that efforts to flee can be riddled with red tape and uncertainty.
  • Travel and Transit
    During transit from their home country to the resettlement area, many refugees experience high levels of stress. For example, stressors might include detaining processes that don’t meet the refugees’ most basic needs. Most refugees are also traveling to an unfamiliar place, which can add additional stressors long after migration.
  • Post-Migration
    Once they arrive in their new country, refugees still face an uphill battle. Culture shock can add to already-difficult experiences, such as navigating foreign communities and bureaucracies without understanding the language. Loneliness is often common during this phase.
  • Settlement
    Assimilating is another incredibly difficult process. Finding steady (and meaningful) employment, remaining resilient in the face of racial bias, and navigating changing immigration or resettlement policies are all realities refugees must face on a regular basis. 

At every stage of the resettlement process, refugee well-being faces an uphill battle. Although most refugees experience a reduction in negative mental health symptoms over time, this process can still take years. Addressing mental health needs throughout the entire resettlement process can not only mitigate the effects of anxiety, depression, and PTSD but also help refugees enjoy a more satisfying life.

Responding to Refugees’ Needs

Understanding the mental-health challenges that asylum seekers face is only the start—the real work comes from working to reverse the trends.

Community care coordination needs to be at the center of properly addressing mental health needs. This effort is particularly important for refugees, as language and cultural barriers can add yet another difficulty to navigating healthcare. Successful care coordination for refugees means having someone to help guide the refugees along every step of the process, including working between different health and human-service organizations to ensure that all needs are met.

In practice, this effort might look like a social worker attending doctor visits with the client, coordinating pick-ups at local food banks, and helping the client with job applications and employment opportunities. Without coordinated care among each of these services, it’s easy for refugees to fall through the cracks and not receive the care they need.

So what’s a resettlement agency (or any other organization supporting refugees) to do? Here are a few ways to mitigate environmental stressors that asylum seekers face:

  • Clear communication to refugee clients about their options for mental-health providers and support (i.e., community centers, schools, low-income clinics, social clubs)
  • Outreach specific to at-risk groups (i.e., teenagers, people with disabilities)
  • Communication aides (i.e., in-person translators, translated materials) and accessible language classes

The Future of Refugee Mental Health

Although they face a tough road ahead during resettlement, asylum seekers are helped better when social-service organizations understand the environmental stressors that put them at risk for worsened psychopathological symptoms. After all, knowing is half the battle.

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