Prevalence of Mental Health Issues in Refugees and Asylum Seekers

In the last few years, there has been an influx of refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries. Countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In addition, many women and children from South America are fleeing violence by gangs and drugs. Many refugees leave their countries have witnessed or experienced the death of loved ones, physical harm, violent and terrifying situations. The psychological impact of conflict-related violence coupled with the ongoing stressors related to displacement can have a significant impact on the mental health and psychosocial well-being of refugee adults and children. For example, who can forget the pictures of the two motionless dead children lying at the beaches of Spain flashing all over the world, or the horror stories of overturned rubber boats in the sea full of migrants making their way to Europe, and not so far away from Home, with families being ripped apart and children as young as five away from their mothers by immigration services. Although most migrants will not suffer from mental health problems, some may be at increased risk because of their experiences prior to, during, or after migration.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health disorders are generally characterized by “a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviors, and relationships with others.” The primary mental-health conditions affecting asylum seekers are PTSD, depression, and anxiety, while alcohol and drug addictions and somatoform disorders have also been reported. On the Greek island of Lesvos, which has been a key way station for asylum seekers crossing from Turkey, the number of individuals presenting self-harm and psychotic episodes increased considerably during summer 2017 compared to the first part of the year, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) reported, potentially a result of earlier lack of care.

In a literature review conducted by Minnesota state university, they concluded the following :

  • Refugees are forced to move to new countries, with different cultures, lifestyles, values, and norms that can be highly disruptive and unsettling (UNICEF, n.d.).
  • Children often feel vulnerable given the fact that their parents and guardians are themselves overwhelmed (Pumariega & Rothe, 2005).
  • During the pre-migration stage, individuals endure experiences before moving, such as war, famine, torture, and other traumatic events (Masaud, McNicholas, & Skokauskas, 2010).
  • Children might be confused about the move because they might not have been included in the decision-making process (Masaud et al., 2010).
  • During the immigration process, individuals might have to travel without access to basic needs. Some might have to travel through different countries before reaching their destination.
  • In the post-migration stage, individuals go through different stressors while trying to settle in the host country.

These experiences can have a lasting and devastating effect on the individuals and their families and can pose a challenge to the mental health community in addressing the needs of such population.

The literature review identified a common and successful theme in addressing the mental health needs of this population.  Family’s holistic approach includes the provision of case management and support services, in addition to mental health services to individuals and families struggling to adjust to life in the new environment. The availability of multilingual staff including service providers fluent in the language is essential in building trust and acceptance of the need for service and ensuring the continuity of services. In addition to incorporating aspects of the individual’s cultural experiences in the treatment process.

One of the most promising approaches to treating asylum-seeking refugees is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s work addressed human motivation with regard to meeting goals and fulfilling needs. Maslow’s ideas have been applied effectively to mental health concerns of various populations such as persons struggling with homelessness (Padgett, Smith, Derejko, Henwood, & Tiderington, 2013) and children in crisis (Harper, Harper, & Stills, 2003). Many refugees face concerns similar to these populations (e.g., food and housing insecurity, barriers to employment, and trauma histories) coupled with additional unique challenges including language barriers and acculturation (Harding & Libal, 2012).

Counselors and other mental health professionals play an important role in promoting the wellbeing of asylum-seeking refugees. Although many articles focus on specific refugee issues, few provide a useful, culturally competent framework for counselors.(Lonn1, &Dantzler2017). Using Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs provides a humanistic approach for assessing and addressing the difficulties and barriers clients with refugee status face in the U.S. Integrating this framework into practice, in multiculturally sensitive ways, can foster the human tendency for growth to overcoming these complexities no matter how difficult or foreign the experience.

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