Highlighting the mental health needs of child asylum seekers and refugees

Highlighting the mental health needs of child asylum seekers and refugees

Written by: Tim Cleary

An expert in child and adolescent psychiatry has called for agencies to be more active in meeting the mental health needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee adolescents.

On 17 May, Dr Matthew Hodes, Senior Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Imperial College, London, spoke at a meeting of the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH). The research he presented revealed a worrying catalogue of mental health problems experienced by vulnerable people who have fled war, torture and oppression.

He spoke of ‘psychiatric distress and disorder, especially among recently arrived asylum-seeking children’ who may have suffered the trauma of war and persecution, become separated from or seen the murder of their families and friends, and undergone huge amounts of stress and maltreatment on journeys to claim asylum in this country. He also gave evidence of the following mental health issues:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • depression;
  • anxiety;
  • self-harm;
  • psychosis.

Stressing the need for greater intervention on the part of the authorities, Dr Hodes said: ‘a high level of social care and foster care is associated with less stress and mental health problems’ and that there is a ‘definite need for high levels of support and inter-agency co-operation’ to attend to the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children.

Estimates given by Dr Hodes show that the number of unaccompanied children in the process of seeking asylum in the United Kingdom has risen from slightly over 1,000 in 1997 to well over 5,000 in the first months of 2006. According to Home Office statistics, 760 unaccompanied children arrived in the United Kingdom to claim asylum in the first quarter of 2006 alone.[1]

In relation to the situation of children in the United Kingdom, members of the audience asked if such mental health problems could be exacerbated if children were detained and threatened with deportation. Dr Hodes suggested that this was likely to be the case, referring to a recent study by psychiatrists, which states that detention centres place children’s ‘normal psychosocial development at risk by exposing them to isolated, deprived, and confined conditions, a situation that bodes poorly for their future adaptation, whether they are ultimately resettled or repatriated’.[2]

Related links

‘No Place For A Child’ website

[1] Home Office Asylum Statistics: 1st Quarter 2006, United Kingdom.
[2] Mina Fazel and Derrick Silove, 'Detention of refugees', British Medical Journal, vol 332, February 2006, pp251-252.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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