SEATTLE —While many humanitarian organizations focus on meeting the needs for food and shelter of the millions of people fleeing violence in the Middle East, others are recognizing the need for mental health services for refugees.
Oftentimes the refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq have traumatic reasons for leaving their home countries. Many have witnessed or been subjected to violence, murder and social upheaval.
Further trauma comes from having to make long and hazardous journeys to safety. Refugees also struggle with being uprooted from their homes and separated from family members.
Once they have reached safer shores, refugees can face a process of resettlement that also brings stress and uncertainty. Obstacles such as delayed asylum application processes, inability to work and lack of support systems place further pressure on refugee mental health.
According to the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center, common mental health conditions associated with refugee populations include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and generalized anxiety.
International Medical Corps conducted a study across refugee populations in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The results found that 54 percent of those surveyed were struggling with a mental, neurological or substance use problem, which depression and anxiety being the most common issues.
The UNHCR notes that the number of refugees suffering from malnutrition or infectious diseases is very low. However, services for chronic diseases and refugee mental health are insufficient, due to a lack of funding and absence of standardized treatment.
The challenges to providing needed mental health services for refugees are great. Cultural context and language barriers have made it difficult for organizations and physicians to carry out effective and standardized treatments.
Additionally, mental health services are relatively expensive and many host countries in the Middle East lack sufficient qualified mental health professionals to reach every refugee.
In addition, building a relationship with a mental health physician or psychologist is a long-term process. Refugees are not guaranteed to be in any place for a long time, making it difficult to develop therapeutic relationships and keep up with treatments.
Despite the lack of mental health services for refugees, some organizations are attempting to provide psycho-social care.
For example, the UNHCR says that in Lebanon around 400 refugee mental health consultations are conducted every week. Additionally, UNHCR conducts research on the health care capacities of refugee host countries and the kinds of issues refugees face.
Project Amal ou Salam, meaning Project Hope and Peace, helps support schools and workshops for refugee children throughout Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon.
The organization uses “music, art, sports, photography and team-building activities to teach the kids about trust and unity and help them deal with the trauma they have sustained.”
Much work remains to be done to develop means of screening refugees for mental health issues and implementing effective interventions. Diverting funds and efforts to address these debilitating issues can greatly improve refugees’ quality of life.