Promoting migrants mental health during pandemic

Thursday, June 11th, 2020 12:00 |

Dr Lillian Bunyassi       

The impact of Covid-19 in Kenya has gone beyond the spread of the disease, and the healthcare response, to an unprecedented economic and social impact to individuals and society at large, that is still unfolding. 

Every age group is experiencing varying degrees of psychological strain; stress and anxiety, worry, fear, loneliness, anger, and an enormous sense of uncertainty about the future.

Although some find positive ways to cope with this difficult situation, others resort to the harmful use of alcohol and drugs.

For many, close family members live in different locations, and the curfews and  other travel restrictions have disrupted the family and social networks that many had always relied on for emotional support.

These psychosocial challenges have affected every stratum of society. 

A unique section of people going through these challenges are migrants, including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, rural-urban migrants, international students, and migrant workers. 

Many present with pre-existing vulnerabilities such as loss of family, home, livelihood, being victims of trafficking, further compounded by unfamiliar environments and cultures, and with limited access to essential basic services.

Although the vast majority of migrants are resilient there are those for whom the psychosocial stress will likely result in adverse mental health consequences, ranging from alcohol abuse or drug dependency to the development of psychiatric conditions like anxiety disorders and depression. 

Granted, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Kenya is helping migrants and various host communities to deal with the impact of COVID-19.

Different groups of migrants are facing different challenges brought about by the pandemic.  

Refugees both in urban settings and refugee camps seem to be particularly hard hit especially by loss of income.

The  IOM Kenya counsellors are on hand to support refugees who find themselves overwhelmed.

Tele-counselling services are available for those who can access internet as well as face-to-face support, although this is limited by the physical distancing and travel restriction measures.

There has also been an increase in the number of domestic violence cases during the pandemic which is also having a negative impact on the mental health of mainly migrant women.  

Social stigma is an unfortunate negative consequence of the pandemic that is being experienced by a wide range of migrants, which is also having a negative impact on mental health.

People are generally afraid of the unknown and this fear can lead to stigmatisation of those perceived as “outsiders” such as migrants, who are then likely to be labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against or treated differently because of real or perceived links with the disease.

IOM staff are also providing assistance to vulnerable migrants and psychosocial support to front line responders and health workers. It is important that these caregivers remain mentally healthy themselves.

As this unprecedented threat to our way of life continues to present a global challenge, IOM reiterates its commitment to make every possible effort to support local communities and the migrants to work towards achieving optimal mental health. —The writer is a Psychiatrist and Migration Health Physician, IOM

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