Advocacy for refugee mental health
Posted Wednesday 22 June 2011
Guest post from Abdi Gure from the Somali Mental Health Advocacy Project at Mind in Harrow.
We know that there are a lot of factors that effect refugees’ mental wellbeing, and that they face enormous challenges in accessing appropriate services based on their needs.
Refugees suffer many problems in the country in which they live and consequently the lack of mental wellbeing should not be simplified; I myself have experience of being a refugee, and I have also been working with the Somali refugee community in Harrow.
Mind in Harrow developed the Somali Mental Health Advocacy Project, with three years' funding from The Kings Fund. The project focuses on ‘cultural brokerage’ and ‘bilingual advocacy’; we have been exploring how effective these approaches prove to be for refugees.
In the context of Somali culture, the family unit is very strong. For this reason, families of those affected have been one of the main groups benefiting from the project; we understand their role in Somali culture as primary carers, and huge benefits of having familial support for the individual in question.
There is a Somali proverb which says “if your brother is in insane, you are sane for him”. In other words, family narrative can help clinicians to understand the background of the patient and find the right diagnosis. The project has worked with clinicians by holding workshops in which we explained how the Somali community perceives mental illness and what are some of the barriers they experience to accessing mental health services.
We took a holistic approach to advocating on behalf of clients since refugees have many problems in addition to mental distress, such as immigration, benefit and housing difficulties. Unfortunately, many clinicians do not understand the immigration problems experienced by the refugees they are treating. With the help of the bilingual advocate, the immigration issues were taken seriously and we even succeeded in resolving the immigration problem in six cases, one of whom was facing deportation.
One of the findings of our project is that many of our clients were neglected by their families. We had a client who has not seen his family for the last four years and he felt abandoned because of his mental illness. The reconnection of the family has ignited a kind of healing process that made our clients feel that they are still alive and their dignity is restored.
We also addressed some of the preconceptions held by the Somali community, many of whom feel that if you become mentally unwell you can never recover. We explained to them that with medication and support, people can lead active lives and achieve positive change.
From my experience when I started in 2007 this bilingual advocacy project was a daunting challenge, particularly being accepted as a professional advocate in the mental health setting because of a lack of understanding of many clinicians about my role. Every time I was asked the same question: “are you the interpreter?” and my simple answer was “no”. Later, after some struggle, I could assert my voice on behalf of voiceless people who can’t express their feelings because of the lack of language.
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