Humanity is currently witnessing the largest refugee crisis after the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of persecuted people, the majority of them refugees fleeing war, are desperately trying to reach the ‘safety’ of ΕU. The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to almost 60 million compared to 50 million a year earlier and almost the half of the today's number a decade ago.
As a mental health counsellor, I have long been intrigued as to why mental health is not considered on par to physical health specifically with regards to the limited mental health services that exists for refugees entering Europe.
More precisely, in light of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence- is important to highlight that the struggles faced by displaced women and gender and sexual minorities throughout their odysseys to attain European soil do not end once they reach Europe. They serve to continue within their treatment within reception centres and across their experiences within struggling to adapt to their new home countries. Many continually face assault and xenophobic attitudes which undoubtedly stem from a complex interweaving of intersectional discrimination [e.g., racism, sexism]. Such realities merit consideration when discussing the necessity in enhancing the attainability and accessibility of mental health services for refugees- specifically during a time in which forced migration is at such a heightened peak. Below is a compilation of composite characters, in an effort to highlight the reality of vulnerability that accompanies refugees in Europe, specifically women and the need for enhanced culturally specific mental health services which caters to the on the ground reality of many of these women being subjected to GBV:
“My name is Safar. I am a 15 year old girl who experienced a tumultuous journey in my quest to reach Europe. I have lost my family, I have seen unimaginable horrors back home and continue to struggle within a new society in which I am subjected to ageism, sexism and xenophobia.”
“My name is Omid. I am the father of three beautiful girls, and am fighting to retain our cultural values in a country which is unlike our motherland. My daughters are repeatedly subjected to discriminatory remarks for wearing their hijab in public and have found it difficult to assimilate. At times I struggle to cope with the feelings of failure- I question whether I have failed as a father as I am unable to protect my children from the difficulties they face in the outside world for being perceived as different within our new surroundings. “
“My name is Salma and I am 13 years old. I am told that I am safe in my new home in Europe. Although I do not hear the sound of bombs outside my window and my external world is safe - internally I am fragmented. I jump at the sound of fireworks and my classmates here attribute my behaviour to be due to me being an ‘emotional young woman’ “.
Should Safar, Omid or Salma require an operation if they had a physical condition – the state would more readily provide them with the services than if they required mental health counselling. We cannot provide a scan for depression – emotional wounds are not necessarily physical and thus not as tangible. A medical card is issued for refugee and asylum seekers’ medical check-ups yet their emotional well-being is cast aside - a persistent reminder of the invisibility of mental illness.
Catering for the importance of mental health by providing free culturally specific counselling to refugees is a necessity and requires persistent attention. It is important to highlight that when a refugee’s journey to Europe is completed, they then embark on a different journey – in which they are processing the loss of their motherland, the loss of their loved ones, and attempting to adapt to their new life in unfamiliar surroundings whilst processing the trauma of the war they have succumbed.
Attaining a safer country may shield a refugee from the external threat of war yet that does not shield them from the internal war in their minds of psychological trauma. For this campaign of 16 days of activism, it is my profound hope that mental health support will no longer be an invisible, intangible construct but attainable and accessible to all of us who require it. And finally:
Let’s consider Safar, whose name means Journey in Arabic.
Let’s consider Omid, whose means Hope in Persian and
Let’s consider Salma, whose name means Safety in Arabic.