The Trauma of Migration

There is still a long way to go before our society understands, supports and de-stigmatise people with mental health problems. The church should be at the forefront of allowing people to be open and honest about depression and other mental health issues, without judgement, impatience or even questioning of the level of people’s faith. The lack of understanding and care in society at large, in the work place and in church is incomprehensible in the twenty-first century. Yet, if it is bad in wider society, our lack of understanding of depression and post-traumatic stress amongst migrants is even worse.

If you consider that a refugee has fled terror, atrocities and threats, then its understandable that they would continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress. However it isn’t only refugees, but also economic migrants, who have risked everything for a better life who struggle with trauma and depression on a large scale. One man we have supported for years told of how he had arrived on a migrant boat from North Africa, which sunk off the coast of Italy in a storm. Those who managed to swim to some rocks only survived if they had climbed high enough, as others were crushed by the boat as it was repeatedly swept onto them. He managed to survive, and has entered Europe as an economic migrant, a category that is often reviled by the press, and yet he has suffered a great deal in search of a better life. The chance of depression in this situation is very high.

Many of the women we work with have come to Europe on a marriage visa, only to find that they face violence at home and exploitation if they are recruited to work in “massage parlours”. One woman we work with has now spent years in psychiatric hospitals because of the abuse she has suffered.

These are not the only causes of mental illness that we encounter. In many ways migration is loss, and people experience grief. The western press gives the impression that it’s easy to migrate, and people do it from greed to get benefits and an easy life. Migration may be many things, but it most certainly isn’t easy. To lose your culture, the support of family and the ability to understand easily what is happening around you are major blows to a person’s mental state and can lead to depression. If you are rejected and isolated, and your high expectations of what life may be like when you arrive in the new country in comparison with the reality may make you feel like a failure, demotivate you and often make you feel suicidal. If your circumstances are such that you can’t go home (for example you now have a child with a partner in your new country and they won’t let you take the child with you), its a recipe for mental illness.

You may ask, if migration is that difficult, why on earth would they come in the first place? Perhaps by asking this question, we begin to see how hopeless the situation at home may have been, or how much pressure has been put on a young person to go and earn money abroad to help the family out of poverty, or support brothers (or more rarely sisters) through school. It also points to an ongoing myth about how much better it is in developed countries, a myth perpetuated by people smugglers.

What can be done to reduce the suffering that migrants suffer?

One way is simply to welcome them. When people find themselves surrounded by positive community, life becomes much easier to cope with.

Secondly, be interested in their culture. We all know that when you move to another country, you have to adapt to a new way of living, but that doesn’t have to mean that your home culture needs to be rejected and vilified. By being interested in an immigrant’s home culture, we actually pave the way for them to be able to cope with the adjustment to a new way of life.

Thirdly, we must understand, that when trauma and feelings of loss have happened, healing and adjustment take time. Let’s not harshly reject people as they struggle to understand their new context, let’s instead take the long view and walk kindly with them for the long-term.

Oasis Belgium works with migrant women who have experienced violence and exploitation. If you would  like to support our work (which would be wonderful!), you can do so here: