27 Jun 3.7 Mental Health
This section aims to provide you, as a sponsorship group member, with some information on ways of approaching mental health in the context of refugee sponsorship. It does not constitute or replace professional advice.
What is the role of sponsorship groups in mental health support?
Sponsorship groups are integral in the refugee newcomers’ process of adapting to the new community since you identify needs and connect them with resources. This is also the case with mental health needs.
As a sponsorship group member, you can support refugee newcomers to seek professional support, which any person can benefit from regardless of their background.
Signs of Mental Health Concerns
The experience of migrating or just moving is stressful for many people, including refugees who are resettled. The arrival and adaptation processes may be exciting, but also include an incredible amount of change.
A few examples of these changes might include:
- separation from family;
- loss of social support;
- language barriers;
- cultural adjustments;
- finding a home;
- search for employment;
- new school and community.
A refugee newcomer may arrive with excitement and hopes of what life in the new community may be like. However, after the initial sense of euphoria fades, stresses and anxiety of resettlement may feel even more intense. Some mental health support needs may or may not be indicated through a medical screening prior to arrival, and being aware of signals of mental health needs will equip you to connect them with the relevant resources.
Many refugees may be coming from a place that was unsafe and unstable. Sometimes, we do not start processing our experiences until we feel that we are in a safe place, and then start to have thoughts and feelings we did not have the space to experience before. Understandably, this can have an impact on our mental health, and each person’s experience is unique.
Our bodies tell us when we need more help. Physiological warning signs may include:
- difficulty falling/staying asleep and fatigue
- trouble concentrating and remembering
- dizziness, nausea, aches, pains
- heart palpitations
- avoidance of intimacy
Our behaviors can also signal a need for support. Behavioral warning signs may include:
- depressed mood
- social isolation
- substance use
A Trauma-Informed Approach
What is trauma?
Traumatic events include a person experiencing, witnessing or learning about something extremely frightening to them. This may involve actual or perceived threats to life or physical and emotional safety (e.g. sexual violence, torture, forced displacement) to themselves or others.
When an event might be considered traumatic to a person, their responses include intense fear or horror, a sense of powerlessness and loss of control. A person may develop traumatic stress or ongoing symptoms at any time after the overwhelming event happens.
How can I be “trauma-informed”?
- Recognizing the potential impact of a person’s trauma history on their life and development;
- Valuing this potential impact in your interactions with them;
- Taking an empowering approach to avoid re-victimization; and
- Valuing self-care to minimize risks of vicarious trauma and burnout.
Ways to use a trauma-informed approach in refugee sponsorship
1. Learn about mental health care providers in your community
Mental health is an important part of every person’s overall health, so you may find it useful to include it within your sponsorship group’s dedicated efforts around health. This could include:
- Identifying local mental health service providers and local crisis phone numbers;
- Learning about any health care processes in your community that are specific to mental health;
- Is it necessary/preferred to meet with a medical doctor to receive a referral?
- Are there associated costs, forms, or other administrative details
- Highlighting that privacy and confidentiality are an important part of these services;
- Being available to help with arranging appointments;
- If it is relevant, finding interpretation services that they feel comfortable with, including ensuring that they will maintain confidentiality;
- Encouraging the person to embrace that their voice, wants, and perspectives matter; and
- Based on their preferences, supporting participation in activities or cultural communities.
2. Familiarize yourself with potential signs of traumatic stress
Revisit what being “trauma-informed” means. At any point after a person experiences a traumatic event, signs of traumatic stress may appear. This is the mind and body telling us that we need extra help to heal.
- Anger outbursts
- Feeling “on edge” or “jumpy”
- Exaggerated startle response
- Uncomfortable thoughts/images
- Reduced memory
- Loss of interest or pleasure
- Feeling “flat”
- Sense of shortened future
3. Try to create a safe, responsive, and inclusive environment
- Empathy is helpful for healing. It could include, for example, reassuring the person that it is okay to be upset during a moment when they are struggling.
- Maintain boundaries since this can be helpful to ensure that you can both be healthy and thrive. You may find it helpful to check in with yourself often around this delicate balance.
- Listening and responding in a non-judgmental way can be helpful in your role, which is to support and encourage. A few approaches to doing this include:
- Asking one question at a time;
- Keeping the conversation simple; and/or
- Using open-ended questions like “How are you feeling today?”
- Find ways to celebrate progress and acknowledge the person’s strengths and successes!
4. Be mindful of potential triggers
Events that neither you or the refugee newcomers anticipate could trigger responses related to difficult or traumatic experiences. Of course, you cannot predict these and it may be unrealistic to avoid everything, but your awareness may allow you to focus in the moment. A few examples of what is triggering to some include:
- Airplanes flying overhead
- Sound of fireworks
- Interacting with authority figures (e.g. police, doctors, government)
- Signing forms
- Being admitted to a hospital
5. Embrace their unique pace
There is no single or correct path to wellness for any person, which also applies to refugee newcomers.
6. Support them potentially accessing professional services
While some people are comfortable or accustomed to sharing potential mental health concerns with professionals, others may not be. This could be due to a broad range of reasons, such as fear for personal safety, stigma, culture, personality, previous discouraging or negative experiences, family, denial, and much more. It may simply be an unfamiliar concept to the person and not clear what the value of therapy or counseling may be. Supportive ways for your sponsorship group to facilitate access to mental health services may include:
- Normalize hesitation since, in many parts of the world, those with mental health needs may be very stigmatized, demonized, oppressed, or physically harmed. It may be helpful to explain that mental health is a taboo subject for many people, regardless of their cultural background.
- Validate that they may have had some experiences that you may not be able to imagine and that, while they may be resilient, it is okay to seek professional help in the new community.
- Reinforce the availability of services and that a safe, supportive space to talk about private things when life is stressful can be helpful. You might find it helpful to emphasize that many people, including other refugee newcomers, have found mental health services helpful.
Each person has a unique experience and response to their experiences. A few examples of possible mental health journeys for refugee newcomers could include these in any combination and in no particular order:
Refugees, Mental Health, and Sponsorship RSTP (video)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and your Role Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (video)
Refugee Mental Health Matters Future Focus Film Ltd (video)
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