This year’s World Mental Health Day theme is ‘mental health is a universal human right’. That’s why we want to shine a light on the specific issues migrants, including refugees, face in relation to mental health.
Looking at the intersections of immigration status with other aspects of identity is integral to our campaigning and policy work at MRN. We have found that the intersections of ableism around mental health and migration status have been overlooked, which is especially concerning in light of increasing reports of mental distress and abuse in immigration detention. Therefore, we want to use this day to bring attention to the complex needs and experiences of migrants in relation to mental health.
Disability and mental health
A significant part of disability – any long-term condition concerning physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment(s) – is mental health, encompassing both permanent and more temporary conditions. The less visible nature of mental health has meant that ableism on these grounds is often ignored. Mental health is a core issue for migrants with disabilities, as many suffer from PTSD after traumatic experiences in their origin country and/or from their journey to the UK.
This can be intensified in immigration detention and Home Office accommodation in the UK; our community have told us rates of loneliness and isolation are high, along with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Uncertainty and an increasingly hostile atmosphere in the UK are exacerbated by the treatment of asylum seekers by the contracted accommodation staff. The hostility that many migrants, including refugees, are met with in Britain can be disabling in (re)traumatising people and negatively affecting rehabilitation.
Talking about mental health requires more than simply raising awareness of the fact that many people, at some point in their lives, will experience some form of mental health condition. We want to explore the barriers to accessing essential mental health support services for migrants with disabilities.
Accessing mental health support
Most migrants are not entitled to free NHS healthcare, including mental health support services. The underfunding of NHS mental health services can also mean this may be hard to access or receive quality care that speaks to the specific experiences of displaced people. NGOs may provide similar services for torture survivors, but are limited in their resources. Further, undocumented migrants, those on short-term visas and refused asylum seekers do not have free access to healthcare, including psychiatric treatment, and face upfront charges of 150% of the cost of providing that care.
The combination of stigma and fear of a mental health diagnosis negatively impacting asylum applications means that many do not access mental health support or declare mental health issues. Anecdotal evidence shows that asylum seekers with both physical and mental disabilities are common, which may lead to a physical disability being recognised and treated/accommodated, but not a mental health condition. For some, the isolation they feel as asylum seekers with physical disabilities has brought on or exacerbated mental health problems. Their inability to access assistive services, as a result of a lack of awareness of how to access these services or their disabilities providing a barrier to actively seeking out/accessing these services means that they receive insufficient aid with their conditions, which often contribute to their mental health issues.
Additionally, over 61% of asylum seekers experience serious mental distress. This is as a result of trauma from torture, war and persecution in their countries of origin, as well as from the asylum system in Britain, where isolation, poor housing and the experiences of making their claim significantly negatively affect their mental health. The role of the asylum process in causing mental ill-health makes it increasingly unlikely that asylum seekers would feel comfortable seeking support from similar state services.
The Hostile Environment exacerbates mental health issues
Mental health issues are often exacerbated by the conditions of immigration detention and asylum accommodation. The use of former military sites, with ex-military personnel acting as security, high barbed wire gates, extensive CCTV and the difficulties of leaving asylum accommodation sites leave people feeling isolated. Asylum accommodation is unsuitable for torture and trafficking survivors, as well as people with other mental health needs, but the lack of suitable assessment and screening processes means that there are people still placed in these damaging and unsafe conditions. The mental health effects of the isolation of migrants is likely to increase as the UK Government moves to expand the detention state.
In order to ensure that mental health is recognised and protected as a universal human right, we call for an end to border violence and immigration detention. Systems of oppression, such as racism, queerphobia, transphobia, and ableism exacerbate mental ill-health, as well as in immigration detention and other modes of bordering, which can further intensify the harm of these systems.
The denial of social and economic rights fundamental to the Hostile Environment, including the denial of safe and decent housing, poverty, combined with the lack of access to mental health support, is itself an extreme mental burden. The Government must end the state-sanctioned oppression of migrants, in immigration detention and anywhere else where the border exists. This includes ending the surveillance of migratised, racialised and queer communities, investing in public services, such as housing and healthcare, and ensuring that those services are free to access, regardless of migration status. This is especially urgent as mental distress and barriers to access care will be heightened for migrants placed at risk of being sent to detention centres in Rwanda, and many more made more precarious by the Inhumane Migration Act.
Ableism and disability advocacy are often ignored, particularly in how it relates to navigating the immigration system and deconstructing the idea of who is welcome in the UK. At MRN, we will continue to explore the relationship between disability and migration through our key strategic objective to defy the existing narratives around migration.
I believe that mental health is indeed a universal human right and any issues surrounding it should be taken with caution. As an asylum seeker, for me this day is not only about raising awareness but a call for urgent and compassionate interventions for asylum seekers and refugees. I have come to realise that we (asylum seekers) have a complex range of health needs that develop prior to leaving our country of origin, during transit or after arrival in the UK. Sadly, most of us are not aware that we need mental health help. This is so because we sometimes mistakenly believe that once we reach a place of safety, our mental health problems will magically disappear. But this is not the case. Being faced with a hostile environment, social exclusion, poor living conditions, destitution and long waiting period due to the deliberate backlog, often exacerbates our existing trauma for a second chance at life, plunging us into a relentless cycle of suffering.
On this day, let’s advocate for a multifaceted approach that encompasses cultural sensitivity, equitable access to mental health services, and a society free from oppression and discrimination.
Stop incarcerating asylum seekers after experiencing a mental breakdown/episode! Instead get them the treatment and support they require.An anonymous asylum seeker in our Network
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