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Stanford University School of Medicine

The mental health of refugees: A psychologist debunks common myths

shinkiari-81770_1920I've recently found myself imagining I was a refugee. I picture my family -- my husband, my son and myself -- traveling with only what we can carry. But then, quickly, as in real life, my toddler son becomes too squirmy to carry and dashes off. Or demands a snack. And there I jolt back to reality. Thinking about what it would be like to not be able to meet my son's needs is just too painful to even imagine.

The mental struggles of real refugees are enormous, obviously. But they are often misunderstood, psychologist Kenneth Miller, PhD, wrote recently in Psychology Today.

For many refugees, life in exile fuels their distress, as much or more than their experiences with war in their home nations, he said. That holds true for both refugees in camps as well as for those who have made it to Europe or North America. He explains:

Social isolation, discrimination, heightened family violence, poverty, the loss of social networks, and especially indefinite detention while their applications for asylum are pending, all take a powerful toll on mental health. Although war-related violence clearly contributes to distress among refugees, a narrow focus on war trauma can lead us to overlook current stressors that may account for much of the distress we are seeing.

Other myths -- such as the perception that refugees are clamoring to take advantage of jobs and social services in developed nations -- that on the surface do not seem to relate to mental health end up harming refugees' ability to heal and thrive in their new homes, Miller said, writing:

Refugees seldom wish to leave their world behind. When people become refugees, they lose their homes, possessions, communities, and livelihoods. The decision to flee is agonizingly painful, a last desperate resort when armed conflict poses too great a threat to people's lives.

The entire piece is well-worth a read.

Previously: A first-hand look at refugee camps in GreeceGlobal mental health: Major challenges persist, Stanford Health Policy Forum speakers say and Choices for Syrian children
Photo by tpsdave

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