Normalizing mental health in the refugee context and beyond

Refugees experience mental health issues such as nightmares, a general feeling of insecurity and the fear of unintentionally arising memories before, during and after fleeing from their country. As part of my PhD studies, I was introduced to various mental health programs that aim to reach refugee youth and provide them with learning strategies to improve their well-being. In this blog post, I wish to present programs that support young people in different contexts: on arrival in the UK, at a self-advocacy group, which also offers help with finding housing and a job, and at a clinic in London.

At the arrival the young people receive a ‘well-being package’ by the USAC Health programs. At the self-advocacy group and at the clinic, the programs are delivered in forms of well-being workshops (BrighterFutures toolkit). Even if the format slightly differs, the programs use similar strategies to promote mental well-being. A shared and important aspect of these programs is normalization of the topic of mental health.

The programs aim to normalize mental health topic through diverse approaches. One approach is using a stigma-free wording. In this approach, the programs use commonly used words such as well-being and stress and explain that every person can face mental health difficulties. Another approach they use is teaching mental health topics in groups and showing young people that they are not alone with their problems. Furthermore, during self-advocacy groups young people who attended the workshop hold future workshops. In addition, psychoeducation helps to reduce mental health stigma, e.g., understanding that their mental health problems are normal reactions to experienced trauma. The mental health practitioners try to transfer this knowledge through using simple metaphors. For instance, they compare the hippocampus area of the brain to a librarian and the amygdala to a security guard in order to teach youth how brain processes work. Last but not least, practical exercises and tips can facilitate learning about mental health topics. For instance, the well-being arrival package includes objects that help with sleeping difficulties, such as a lavender sachet, a worry doll and a night light. The package also includes tips on how to change the inner clock step by step.

Mental illness is a taboo topic not only in the refugee context but also in general. Therefore, the UK launched many initiatives which aim to normalize talking about mental health, especially among children and adolescents. These initiatives can also inspire programs for refugees and can be designed and disseminated so that they reach everyone, regardless of their background. The names of these initiatives reflect that they focus on the stigmatized image of mental health and that this should change: Rethink Mental Illness, Time to change – let’s end mental health discrimination (Time to Change), We all have mental health (Anna Freud NCCF we all have mental health).

An important approach to reduce the mental health stigma and make mental health services attractive for young people is including the voice of the young people themselves. At the Anna Freud Center, young people called the Young Champions participate for instance at Youth Panels and speak publicly in the media and at events about their experiences. These youth are interested in the subject of mental health and many of them have experienced mental health problems. Another organization, the Young Minds, included over 5,600 young people in their campaign to talk openly about their problems (YoungMinds Vs ) and over 1,500 young activists talked online about their mental health problems (Young Minds ).

The presented mental health initiatives are the first step towards breaking the taboo of mental health and show that mental health is a topic relevant not only for refugees but for all of us. Through normalizing mental health in general public, we might make it easier also for refugees to seek and accept mental health support.

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