Refugees and Mental Health: The Hidden Pandemic and the Value of Kindness

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By Agnese Pierobon, Sona Circle

I remember a couple of weeks after my move to a new country, I was walking around, trying my best not to get lost in a city unknown to me, when out of the blue, I heard a friendly voice. I turned and saw a refugee from the camp where I had recently started working; waving, he asked “Hi, boss, do you need directions?”

This interaction changed my perspective, things were turned upside-down; I was the stranger and he was the one who could guide me. This event gave me a small insight into the challenges that refugees face when they arrive in Europe. Being alone in a foreign country is never easy. For a refugee it could be dramatically harder.

Walking in the shoes of a refugee means; wondering how it would feel to be forced to leave your own country, to flee, leaving family and friends behind. It means travelling on a long journey, often vulnerable to extremely traumatic experiences, such as physical and sexual violence, torture, exploitation, hunger and thirst.

It means putting your life in the hands of smugglers, with the belief that they are your last and only chance to save yourself and reach a safe place to stay. Then, the lucky ones, those who survive the journey to Europe, start a long odyssey through multiple refugee camps, frequent police interrogations and complex bureaucracy. They begin the struggle to settle in their host country and to find a job. Many also have the responsibility to provide for their families, who are stuck in their home country.

Challenging

When refugees arrive in Europe, the procedures at reception centers focus on medical screening to check their physical wellbeing – but they don’t do enough to provide psychological assessment and, if needed, support. The refugee experience is extremely challenging and research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that displaced people are five times more likely to have problems with their mental health. Among the most common symptoms are anxiety, despair, a sense of helplessness and a loss of confidence in the future. The most severe cases suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which includes symptoms like flashbacks, hyperarousal, poor sleep and concentration as well as a loss of trust in other human beings.

To combat the mental health conditions refugees’ face, specific psychological treatments are very important and can have a deep positive impact. Individual or group therapy sessions, focused on discussing the traumatic event(s) is recommended in order to speed up the recovery process and to help refugees to start their new life.

However, as many psychologists highlight, this clinical relationship is not enough; in order to boost the effects of the therapy, it is fundamental that refugees also experience new, positive personal relationships with other people in their normal life. Forming a social network, developing friendly relationships with locals, not only with other migrants, can boost their integration and their self-empowerment.

So what can we, as members of the community, do in our daily lives to support refugees? We can be kind. We can remember that a single word may have a great impact. We can break down the wall of indifference and try to personally involve ourselves in supporting refugees.

We can go a step further. We can donate to organisations such as Sona Circle which help create employment opportunities for refugees within local communities. Sona Circle works with companies to employ refugees within their organisations, thereby providing a valuable resource to organisations that not only wish to hire a diverse workforce, but are socially conscious and wish to make a positive impact. We can donate towards the Sona Circle fundraiser here.

A single act of kindness can have a life changing impact on refugees and entire communities.

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