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Addressing the mental health needs of asylum seekers: A compassionate and trauma-informed approach

University of South Australia Media Release

A new study by The University of South Australia has found mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and suicidality are widespread among people seeking asylum in Western nations, including Australia.

The research, conducted by UniSA’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research Group (MHSPRG), was published in the British Medical Bulletin, and examined data from Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States, finding asylum seekers from all regions face numerous systemic mental health challenges.

MHSPRG researcher, Heather McIntyre, says the team reviewed 25 studies which included a total of 3504 asylum seekers from 12 countries, and results indicate mental health problems are relatively common and often co-occur.

“The experience of seeking asylum is unique and problematic when compared to other migration trajectories, and this review suggests harsh and restrictive immigration policy settings initiated by governments severely affect asylum seekers’ mental health,” McIntyre says.

“Significantly, our review finds this population group experiences high rates of PTSD, anxiety and depressive symptoms, with 25-54 per cent of participants meeting criteria for at least two of these conditions.”

The MHSPRG review also indicates self-harm and suicidality are linked to the asylum immigration process, reinforcing similar findings from other studies over many years.

“Rejection of asylum seeker claims is a major driver (61 per cent) of suicidal thoughts and behaviour and presentation to psychiatric emergency services – uncertainty for the future and perceived burdensomeness all contribute to suicidal ideation and acting upon those thoughts,” McIntyre says.

“Advocates and care workers of asylum seekers and refugees see these outcomes weekly, and publicly available information (unconfirmed and provisional data) shows us that asylum seekers are thought to die by suicide at a higher rate than their male Australian-born counterparts.”

The MHSPRG study recognises asylum seekers often express mental distress in ways consistent with their culture and suggests the medical and professional response should be ‘trauma-informed’.

“A trauma-informed approach acknowledges that behaviours and expressions of distress are coping strategies instinctively developed to manage trauma,” McIntyre says.

“Being aware of trauma and consciously working to avoid causing more trauma or re-traumatisation is the approach needed – showing empathy toward the person, while gently encouraging them to develop their autonomy and support them to make positive mental health care choices.”

The study also emphasised that work rights and employment prospects can be a significant factor in protecting and promoting mental health for asylum seekers.

“Feeling psychologically safe and being able to work increases wellbeing for the asylum seeker; living a life as normal as possible is also a driver for personal autonomy and will improve mental health,” McIntyre says.


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  1. RosemaryJ36

    The way Australia treats refugees may well cause them more damage than the circumstances from which they seek refuge.

  2. Terence Mills

    I understand that the Senate are currently considering legislative changes to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from having mobile phones and tablets whilst in detention.

    Dutton has said that this is necessary as some detainees were found to have accessed pornography on their devices : Mr Dutton didn’t mention that most detainees use their phones and devices to maintain contact with family and friends – including their lawyers.

    Reading between the lines it is clear that contact with lawyers is what Mr Dutton is most concerned about.

    As many of these asylum seekers have been in detention for between five and eight years it seems to me that the ability to maintain outside contact is the best mental health therapy they could have – and Mr Dutton knows that.

  3. Matters Not

    From Get-Up:

    Peter Dutton’s cruel attempt to take mobile phones away from refugees and people seeking asylum will come down to just one vote in the Senate: Jacqui Lambie. Senator Lambie could make a decision any day, and the good news is she wants to hear from the public.

    Interesting – and at a number of levels. First, that Lambie sees the decision as a problem says much, particularly when an obviously intellectually challenged Senator is consulting the moral compass. Second. and at a deeper and more significant level is the recognition that the technology to transition from a representative democracy to a more participatory one is readily available. Witness the recent parliamentary participation by MHRs from their homes and offices – with non-voting banned only by the time taken to count a vote. Hilarious.

    Why is it, that one can now instruct a program to buy and sell shares, bonds etc almost instantaneously, which are listed on more than ten (10) international indices, involving almost unlimited dollars, without shifting from a personal keyboard, while one can’t have an immediate say re legislation in one’s own Parliament. Guess there’s no political will. And we wonder why the youth don’t vote. Imagine telling the young that having a say in x years is what they can look forward to. Oh how they laugh!

  4. Jack Cade

    Matters Not

    The simple point you make- that the RIGHT decision is so bleedin’ ’ obvious it shouldn’t need pondering, says a lot about Lambie, none of it complimentary.

  5. Terence Mills

    It was Lambie’s vote that allowed the repeal of the Medical Evacuation legislation and she has yet to explain how she justified her decision.

  6. DrakeN

    Matter Not,

    there is also no mechanism for the population to dismiss a government which it deems to be acting against the interests of the nation.

    Just imagine how differently a government would behave if they knew that when the voters eventually wised up to the lies and prevarications which the candidates spruiked on the hustings they could be turfed at short notice.
    The same could apply to individual candidates of any Party or even independents.

    The proceses would be expensive in monetary terms, but the results well worth the ante.

  7. Matters Not

    Terence Mills – Lambie claimed she was briefed on highly confidential, extremely sensitive national intelligence which effected her decision. (Read – she was seduced by those who knew how to appeal to a very insecure individual.)

    DrakeN – citizens can legitimately dismiss a government every three years or thereabouts at an election. Certainly concede that elected governments (and individual members) need stability but that shouldn’t mean it’s essential they win every vote on the floor. Currently, however, citizens effectively elect the equivalent of an unaccountable dictatorship.

    We can do much better if there was the political will but virtually ALL our parliamentarians are in the same metaphorical tent and fear the winds of change. They worked hard to get where they are (witness the blood stained bodies in the path behind them) and they are not going to give up the prize(s).

    These days – to organise a referendum would be as cheap as chips with a proper NBN. Think of the savings possibilities re planes, accommodation, meals, allowances, drivers, cars etc,

  8. Jon Chesterson

    Peter Dutton’s argument to ban mobile phones because he alleges asylum seekers are accessing porn. Do we just accept this statement when we know the prize little bugger spins wild lies, accusations and gaslights just to get his own way on everything; when clearly there is no chance he would win or be listened to under normal circumstances when the facts, ethics and reason for a decision are placed before us? Is it not more likely this is just an excuse to claim irrelevant moral high ground, the action of a desperate mad man, a dictator in waiting, one who uses intelligence legislation to prevent truth and fact being known? Is it not more likely this prize little bugger accesses porn on his own mobile when he is feeling like a prick me up – After all why else would he be aware of something that is not the case or that he can use to manipulate the politics? If there were any truth to it, it is far more likely it is a frame up; or border force and security staff, the custodians themselves who are the perpetrators going online for a prick me up. How convenient there are others who cannot defend themselves from his nasty little accusations and abuse. If there was any truth in it, will he ban the mobiles of all Australians because there happen to be some in the population that access porn? If not how come we have different standards or is this the society we are to become under Peter Dutton’s reign of terror? Only the privileged will have access to porn sites and only they will not be restricted, investigated or prosecuted or else beware if you take away the rum and privileges of office and compliant, merchant, mercenary crew. One has to wonder, if this is a problem why not improve the firewall, prosecute, shut down, dismantle, invade or take down the suppliers. It’s like attacking those with personal drug use and turning a blind eye to the mafia, the cartel, the drug pushers, assuming there are the users, as alleged.

    What right has Dutton to moralise here? On what grounds is he allowed to incite anarchy, spread lies, false news, irrelevant arrguments when he is incapable of moral-ethical reasoning or any reason at all? Furthermore what right has Dutton to moralise at all and yet we let this prize little bugger draft legislation to govern us and throw us all under the bus of secrecy, intelligence gathering and national security legislation – He being among the few who bathes himself in the fires of unaccountability, above the law.

    Oh we are not fooled, the reasoning reveals the truth – Dutton has no legitimate reason to ban mobile phones from asylum seekers, they aren’t even Australian citizens or in the country, and if they were like us, he would never get away with it! He wants to silence them, abuse them, exploit them for political gain as he has always done. He is the abuser responsible for all this trauma, mental disorder, suicide and suffering.

    And while we are in the middle of a pandemic he wants to take away the only trace of hope and technology that keeps asylum seekers under his control from the gates of hell – Dutton, the prize little bugger from hell, the gatekeeper of all we survey!

    Now this should remind us once again, as the voices of the innocent and oppressed have once again fallen silent under the veil of the pandemic – While some have conveniently quietly slipped away and been given refuge and citizenship in other countries, what is the current plight and status of those who have not, those who have been left behind in Dutton and Morrison’s offshore concentration camps? Lest we forget!

    As for Jacqui Lambie, she should be bloody ashamed of herself if she thinks she needs time to consider the moral ground. She too is being political, I really don’t think she has the intelligence to put her mouth where she thinks her mind, heart or political responsibility is, otherwise she would not be playing this game. Clearly she can be bought and she has put herself up for sale – Ironic if you think about it.

  9. Jack Cade

    Jon Chesterson

    Don’t look to Lambie for moral decency. She was one of Clive Palmer’s candidates. If we as a nation have to rely on the likes of Lambie for moral guidance we are well and truly rooted.

  10. Paul Davis

    Thank you Jon, well reasoned and succinctly expressed.

  11. leefe

    “… including Australia.”?

    Given our treatment of so many refugees, I would have thought the correct phrasing would be “particularly Australia”.

    As for accessing porn, if one must not do so in order to be permitted a mobile phone, at least 90% of phones in Australia would have to be surrendered to the authorities.

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