According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), ‘Asylum seekers and refugees are more likely to experience poor mental health than the local population, including higher rates of depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders’. MHF also acknowledges that this increased vulnerability to these mental health difficulties is as a result of ‘pre-migration experiences’, including war trauma and ‘post-migration conditions’ which include: separation from family, distressing asylum procedures and poor housing.

Asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs but are far less likely to receive support

In April of this year, RcPsych called for an overhaul of how refugees and migrants who are displaying since of mental distress are treated when they enter the immigration system, specifically looking at detainment, in an extensive report.

The report, in the form of a position statement, made it very clear that detainment of refugees and migrants who experience a wide variety of mental distress results in heightened mental distress.

The position statement from RcPscyh centred their opposition against regulations which make it easier for the government to detain people who have, often found themselves in the UK due to being exploited and trafficked.

The report stated, ‘Research suggests that a high proportion of immigration detainees display clinically significant levels of depression, PTSD and anxiety, as well as intense fear, sleep disturbances, profound hopelessness, self-harm and suicidal ideation.’ Whilst also mentioning that ‘greater trauma exposure prior to detention was associated with symptom severity’ and that the same research determined the need for identification of vulnerability and ‘minimising the duration of detention’ in it’s conclusions.

As RcPsych acknowledged in their position statement, it is unsurprising that many of those who find themselves confronted with detention as a migrant, refugee or asylum seeker experience a high prevalence of mental distress/illness. Chronic stress and trauma are precursors to many of the mental disorders and difficulties listed above.

Not only do these people have a vulnerability to developing disorders such as PTSD or anxiety because of their ‘pre-migration’ experiences, but as the RcPsych report highlighted, ‘Being in a detention centre is likely to act as a painful reminder of their past traumatic experiences and to aggravate their fears of potential imminent return.’

Another aspect the report focuses on is how detainment ‘impedes community rehabilitation’, meaning many people who enter the UK as a refugee or asylum seeker and who experience mental distress under detainment, then find it harder to re-enter society.

This discussion started by RcPsych in April has now since been bolstered by new research, published in their journal, BJPsych Open. The new research by Dr Marc Molendijk and Irina Verhülsdonk from Leiden University in the Netherlands, has found that mental illness is ‘twice as common among refugees and migrants in detention, compared to those not in detention.’

The findings from this research have been interpreted by the authors and by RcPsych as damning evidence of the harmful effect that detention has on the mental health of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Key statistics:

  • ‘Two in three (68%) refugees and migrants in detention have depression, more than half (54%) have anxiety and two in five (42%) have PTSD.’

Over 23,000 refugees and migrants have been detained in the UK between April 2019 and March 2020

Speaking on their research now published in BJPsych Open, the authors said, “Immigrant detention seems to have an unacceptable negative effect on the mental health of refugees.” Responding to this research and in continuation of their opposition against the Nationality and Borders Bill, RcPsych say the bill should be scrapped on ‘mental health grounds.’

Professor Cornelius Katona, the lead author of RcPsych’s original position statement on detention said:

“This research provides further evidence of the harm caused by detention which is exacerbating and triggering mental illness in already very vulnerable and traumatised people. Detainees experiencing mental illness should receive the same standard of care as anyone else, but the very fact of detention makes this impossible. The reality is that being detained in these centres is very distressing and harmful if you have a mental illness, because of the environment itself and the lack of access to specialist treatment.”

RcPsych are also extremely concerned that those who are displaying observable signs of depression, anxiety or PTSD are not able to access specialist treatment whilst in detainment, often because staff might not have the training necessary to identify those who are experiencing symptoms as a result of mental illness.

Dr Adrian James, President of RcPsych spoke on this saying: “Refugees and migrants with existing mental illness should only be detained in very exceptional circumstances. It is also crucial that staff are given proper training to identify mental illness when it arises or deteriorates significantly, so that this can be managed appropriately by linking with local mental health services.”

“The Nationality and Borders Bill must be scrapped, as this harmful legislation will worsen the mental health of refugees and migrants. The Bill stands to leave thousands in limbo by focusing on how they arrived in the UK, rather than their need for help.”

As the number of displaced people seeking refuge and escape from trauma and violence increases, this issue is only going to become more pertinent. The findings presented in this new research and collated by RcPsych in their position statement show unequivocally that the current approach is not only aggravating already existing mental illness, but preventing recovery and healing.

If you are moved by the topics discussed in this article or want to know more about what might be done to help, Refugee Council offer a wide rage of support to those in need that you can either donate to or provide volunteer efforts. Read more here.