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Government plans mean many more traumatised asylum seekers will be deprived of crucial mental health support

Government plans mean many more traumatised asylum seekers will be deprived of crucial mental health support

| Alamy

Professor Cornelius Katona, Royal College of Psychiatrists

3 min read

Immigration detention centres aren’t places for people living with a mental illness. But unless MPs oppose the government’s plans to make it easier for them to detain people who have been trafficked to the UK, many more people will be deprived of the mental health support they need to make a full recovery.

A high proportion of asylum seekers are so scarred by their experiences they have clinically significant levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. Many suffer from intense fear, sleep disturbances, profound hopelessness, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

These symptoms reflect the terrible experiences they endured in their country of origin, and during the often difficult and dangerous journeys to the UK. Many have suffered multiple traumatic losses including bereavements, separation from loved ones and loss of home, status and identity. These experiences are only compounded through detention as asylum seekers suffer loss of freedom and separation from the social networks they may have built up in the community since being in the UK. 

A history of torture predisposes an individual to a greater risk of harm from detention, including deterioration in mental health and increased risk of anxiety, depression and PTSD. Similar considerations apply to survivors of human trafficking/modern slavery, whose ill-treatment can be considered equivalent to torture. People with pre-existing psychoses, such as schizophrenia, are likely to deteriorate due to the high expressed emotion in an environment with other frightened and angry fellow detainees.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists believe that asylum seekers with a mental illness shouldn’t be held in immigration detention centres. We are deeply concerned by the current Home Office policy which weighs up indicators of vulnerability, including mental illness, against a range of “immigration factors” when deciding to detain. But people with significant mental illness and whose first language may not be English will have difficulty in being effective self-advocates and making their vulnerability known.

In addition, asylum seekers with a mental illness cannot and do not receive the treatment they need while they’re detained. Successful treatment requires a holistic approach and continuity of care while focussing on recovery and relapse prevention. It is impossible to deliver this package of treatment in a detention centre, meaning asylum seekers will be living with untreated mental illness in a setting that is wholly inappropriate.

The lack of adequate treatment isn’t the only issue. The restrictive and frightening conditions of detention centres only serve to exacerbate mental illness, particularly PTSD.  Memories of a previous traumatic experiences are likely to be triggered and may also increase distress through the threat of impending removal or deportation.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists also recommends that clinical and other staff working in detention centres should receive adequate training and support to identify mental disorder and mental deterioration, and clear guidelines on their management and on effective liaison with local mental health services to ensure continuity of care. Training in capacity assessment and in safeguarding is also crucial.

Despite the untold suffering detention centres can cause asylum seekers with a mental illness, the government are trying to extend their powers of detention to make it easier for them to detain people who have been trafficked into the country. Many more people will be subjected to intolerable suffering unless MPs lodge their objections to these plans before Thursday by signing Early Day Motion 1696.


Professor Cornelius Katona is lead for refugees and asylum seeker’s mental health at the Royal College of Psychiatrists

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