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03 June, 2014

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, which took place from 12 to 18 May 2014, the Evelyn Oldfield Unit hosted their first event to discuss how to support refugee and asylum seeking (RAS) women accessing therapeutic services in the UK.

Representatives identify how current therapy services are effective among refugees and asylum seekers
Representatives identify how current therapy services are effective among refugees and asylum seekers
Established in 1994, the Evelyn Oldfield Unit has worked to develop and deliver 'specialist support for refugee organisations to enable them to adequately tackle the pressing needs of the communities they serve.' Their Supporting Women Project - funded by Comic Relief – is a new key initiative where its purpose is to build the capacity of groups supporting vulnerable RAS women, in particular, those affected by violence or trauma.

The forum brought together representatives from a diverse range of refugee groups and mainstream groups, such as the Refugee Council, Haringey Migrant Support Centre, Medical Foundation, Women & Girls Network, Refugee Therapy Centre, Race Equality Foundation and the West London Synagogue as well as refugee community organisations.

Representatives discussed ways of collaborating to increase access to therapy services for RAS women, highlighting current mental health issues that are being faced and identifying common barriers that hinder their access to getting support.

The drawn out asylum process, the Home Office’s Dispersal Policy placing RAS women in remote and often inadequate accommodation and being separated from family, were identified as some of the major causes of emotional distress. These factors are in addition to the trauma that may have been faced in their own country that drove them to seek asylum.

Letifa from Haringey Migrant Support discusses how women refugees and asylum seekers are placed in remote, often unsuitable, areas of the UK, where they can experience further discrimination and isolation.
Letifa from Haringey Migrant Support discusses how women refugees and asylum seekers are placed in remote, often unsuitable, areas of the UK, where they can experience further discrimination and isolation.
Cultural interpretations about psychological distress could be viewed differently among diaspora communities. The discussion revealed that UK refugee communities are largely unaware of how to identify common mental health issues. Those suffering from mental health conditions, such as, depression, postnatal depression, anxiety and stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), were not able to understand what they were going through. Once their situation worsened, therapeutic interventions may have been too late. Therapeutic support such as counselling, where provided, is a western style of therapy not encountered in certain cultures.

Representatives also addressed the need for a culturally accessible psycho-educational programme, which can be delivered in different languages by local psychological services that can be accessed through a GP or self-referral.

The meeting discussed problems encountered by refugee women when they access mental health services. For instance, those who are referred to a therapy service can be treated by therapists who have a limited understanding of the particular issues faced by RAS women.

The forum also identified a lack of mental health practitioners from RAS communities. While excellent initiatives have been made to provide accredited advocacy training programmes for refugees, participants felt that it would be worthwhile focusing on training mental health professionals or advocates within refugee communities as well.

The dialogue concluded on a hopeful and proactive note, with each member of the group pledging to do their part in establishing self-help therapy groups, employing a creative and flexible attitude in carrying out therapy programmes, establishing more centres that offers therapy in conjunction with practical services and lobbying local NHS services to engage more effectively with the needs of RAS women. Most importantly, all pledged to work more collaboratively together in order to use one another’s resources and networks more effectively.

Report and photos by Yasmine Kamel, Researcher, IofC-UK Sustainable Communities Programme

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