Mental Health and Migration

The mental health of the migrant and refugee population:  the hardships of a year in a pandemic. 


By, Elena Rodríguez-Ventosa*


On March 11, 2021, it was one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. During this year, humanity has had to face unprecedented challenges completely derived from the implementation of measures such as home confinement and restrictions of various kinds. These measures, added to the concern and uncertainty about the pandemic itself, have had endless consequences that have affected us on many levels, including mental health. At this point it is worth asking: has it affected all of us equally?


Focusing on the mental health of the general population, the pandemic and the restrictions have increased feelings of agitation, stress, restlessness, hopelessness and insomnia, which, in many cases, has resulted in an increase of cases of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, in addition to aggravating those issues that were already present previously. However, it is necessary to recognize the variability of the impact of these disorders and of these symptoms depending on the living conditions of the people and their individual factors. Precisely for this reason, if the findings in the general population already indicate a clear increase in symptoms and an occurrence of mental disorders, how will this phenomenon have affected the migrant and refugee population?


Regardless of their previous state of mental health, with the declaration of the pandemic, migrants and refugees are among the social groups most affected by the COVID-19 crisis, thus suffering serious consequences at the social and economic level that increase their vulnerability. Among them are the loss of a job, separation from their family, the inability of returning to the country of origin and, in the case of refugee camps, the impossibility of maintaining the necessary social distance to avoid contagion. Furthermore, according to You et al., racist and xenophobic behaviors towards the migrant and refugee population have been increased by the belief that they are responsible for the spread of the virus. This is due, in part, to the restrictive measures that have been specifically imposed on this population, which in many countries, have been different from those applied to the general population. The result of all this has increased the feelings of uncertainty, discomfort, fear, anger and hopelessness among the migrant and refugee population, feelings that, in their case, are already above the average under normal conditions. 


According to the psychiatrist Pieter Ventevogel in the interview for ACNUR, the fact that the migrant and refugee population have a great number of additional stressors during this pandemic is a perfect breeding ground for developing a mental disorder. This, in turn, is frequently aggravated in the refugee population by perceiving health centers as places that increase the risk of infection or illness rather than places where health status can improve, which reduces the search for help on their part. 


In this line, and as commented by Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: “It is urgent to invest in mental health and in psychosocial support programs for this population since, if we do not act in favor of their well-being in a holistic way, the effects can be irreversible and last for generations. Within the assistance package, mental health care is essential to promote the development of resilient and mentally healthy societies.”


In view of the mental health crisis that is taking place especially in the migrant and refugee population, and in response to the appeal of the United Nations Secretary General to consider actions aimed at improving mental health as essential components of responses to COVID-19, ACNUR and the Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM) have implemented a series of mental health and psychosocial support measures (MHPSS) that include the following actions : 


  • Direct messages to the community about strategies for coping with stress and anguish
  • Train frontline workers in psychological first aid and basic psychosocial skills
  • Provide psychological support through telephone help lines
  • Increase the offer of psychological therapy for the migrant and refugee population with mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or for those who are going through a grieving process
  • Ensure ongoing care and support for people with moderate or severe mental disorders


Beyond the measures that are already being implemented to stop the increase in the frequency of mental disorders in the migrant and refugee population, the issue of guaranteeing the development of inclusive programs for all (regardless of legal status) in the field of mental health and making prevention a priority to prevent the occurence of these disorders from continuing to increase is still pending. 


*Elena Rodríguez-Ventosa Herrera is a researcher at the School of Human and Social Sciences (CIHS) at the Pontificia Comillas University and is a part of the  Project IMMERSE.


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