Moving away from home is a monumental step, but one that comes with both difficulties and hardships. It’s a transition period that is the gateway to a new beginning and a hopeful future but, ironically, sometimes it won’t let us escape from our pasts.
Research has already shown us that the transition that migrants face places them at an increased risk of poor mental health, but particularly for PTSD.
So why is it that PTSD in migrants is not more openly discussed by the healthcare system and wider media? And what preventative measures are we taking to protect the mental health of those embarking on their new stage in life? I aim to shed some light on the issue that is PTSD in the migrant population and hope to show you how PTSD can be tackled – from both an individual and a collective perspective – for the health of all migrants.
What is PTSD?
PTSD, an abbreviation for post-traumatic stress disorder, is a mental disorder which can occur in those who have been involved in or have witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event.
It is characterised typically by re-experiencing the traumatic event, sometimes in the form of nightmares, physical symptoms, like nausea and pain, or negative thoughts about their experience that are constant. Other symptoms include avoidance or feeling ‘on edge’. These symptoms can, in some cases, significantly affect people’s day-to-day functioning. These symptoms can develop soon after the traumatic event or may even be delayed until years after the experience.
How does PTSD apply to migrants?
PTSD is a debilitating disorder that as high as 47% of migrants will experience in their lifetime. For comparison, the percentage of adults in the general population who have PTSD is roughly 3% – a considerable difference.
But, how does PTSD apply to migrants? After all, not every migrant may have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime, events like natural disasters, fatal accidents or assaults.
As high as 244 million people in the world have migrated from their home countries for reasons including poverty, war or wanting to seek a better life for themselves. Some of these migrants will have already experienced traumatic events in their home countries, but all migrants may experience a number of risk factors that come during the migration process that place them at an increased risk of mental health disorders such as PTSD.
Typically, these risk factors are stressful or traumatising experiences, and can occur before migration, during migration or post-migration, and include: experiencing separation from family members; racial and ethnic discrimination; abuse from law enforcement officials and reclusion or risk of deportation. It is factors such as these that place individuals at an increased risk of mental health problems.
Of course, it is worth mentioning that these experiences are highly subjective. Not every migrant who experiences a traumatic or stressful event will develop PTSD in their lifetime. This is entirely down to the individual – how they perceive the experience and how they psychologically respond to it.
Other factors include loneliness, feeling like they can’t ascribe to any one culture, poor social conditions, such as housing or being exploited at work, and a change in language can place them at an equally increased risk of mental health problems such as PTSD.
What can be done about PTSD in the migrant population?
Seeking professional help
It is important that if you feel you are struggling with your mental health as a migrant, you should seek professional help.
PTSD is a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, so if you are concerned in any way about your mental wellbeing or feel that you may be experiencing anything that has been discussed earlier in this article, please seek professional help.
A qualified medical professional will be able to talk through your experiences with you, ask you the necessary questions and gain a better understanding of you and your mental state, and will take appropriate action if you are diagnosed with PTSD. They will also be able to discuss available treatment options with you that are suited to your needs should you need it.
Medical professionals should view migrants as distinct from the general population
I feel that it is important to note, for your own interest and knowledge, that research has highlighted that mental health services should be working to approach specific populations, such as migrants, with a slightly different view to that of the general population. Because migrants have specific stressors and risk factors that we have already discussed and have a higher risk and percentage of mental health problems generally, health care professionals should be aware of this, and approach your situation accordingly.
Work to tackle ethnic and racial discrimination against migrant populations
There are numerous national and international charities, such as the European Network Against Racism, that are working to fight against racism and xenophobia.
However, other than supporting these charities and organisations, it is important that, as a society, individuals stand up and work to fight against racism and xenophobia towards migrants.
By calling out hate speech and discriminatory acts, we are gradually working to educate and decrease the amount of bigotry in society. And by making sure that we are educating others (particularly future generations) we can ensure that they know that hate speech is seriously harmful.
Self-care and PTSD: Coping during and after your big move
By no means should you try to diagnose your own mental state or aim to treat any suspected or existing mental health disorders, but there are different ways that you can help to address or alleviate symptoms of PTSD yourself:
The feelings of being overwhelmed and significant stress that often comes with PTSD means practising mindfulness is a useful technique to relax and calm both our minds and bodies. Research even showed that mindfulness is associated with a lower amount of PTSD symptoms. Techniques such as meditation, prayer and focusing on your breathing are just a few ways that you can kickstart your mindfulness journey.
Care For Your Physical Health
Exercising has been linked to better mental health by reducing stress. But also caring for your physical health by making sure you’re getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and maintaining a healthy diet plays a big part in maintaining a good mental state.
Find A Support Group
Various mental health charities can offer support for you, or a loved one, in times of need. You can find support that’s suited to your needs and based on your location at Hub of Hope.
Identify and Understand Your Triggers
By figuring out what factors might be making you feel overwhelmed, anxious or afraid when you have PTSD, you can better understand and avoid these situations, people or particular places that may be causing this reaction. Triggers can include factors such as: physical pain, sadness, loneliness and memories, but also anniversaries, holidays or certain people that may remind you of the event.
Either avoiding or trying to find healthy ways to cope with triggers can help you deal with potentially triggering experiences. Healthy mechanisms such as mindfulness, relaxation, seeking social support, journaling or deep breathing are a number of ways to cope with your PTSD triggers.
Post-traumatic stress disorder continues to plague the lives of many migrants around the globe. But by raising awareness of the issue and exploring what can be done – both on a personal and professional level – I hope I have shed light on this prevalent issue and implored you to act to improve your own mental wellbeing, or support those around you who may be struggling.