Blog: Supporting refugee children’s mental health

Published: 22 Nov 2018

Author: Sarah Gaughan
Blog: Supporting refugee children’s mental health

Over 2,000 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in the UK in the past year, and a further 2,817 children arrived in the UK directly from conflict regions as part of refugee resettlement programmes.

Children fleeing violence, conflict and instability face unique challenges, on their journey and when they arrive in their final destination. The terrible experiences they have lived through can result in a wide variety of problems, including anxiety, PTSD and bedwetting. Research suggests that for boys, trauma often manifests itself externally through behavioural problems, while girls tend to internalise their problems and experience depression.

I know what we, as a society, need to think carefully about what we can do to promote and protect these children’s mental wellbeing.

In 2017 I travelled to the USA and Canada as part of my Churchill Fellowship. Both these countries have a long history of refugee resettlement, and I hoped to find out what they were doing well, and how we in the UK can learn from their experiences.

In the USA, I was struck by the overwhelming dedication of practitioners and the community to continue to welcome and support refugees. Canada has positioned itself as a world-leader in refugee resettlement, and the pride Canadians take in this was evident.

Below: A sign in a front garden in New Haven, Connecticut

Sign in New Haven, Connecticut

What was clear throughout all my meetings with incredible people and organisations that have dedicated themselves to supporting refugee mental health was that wellbeing starts in the community and has to go hand in hand with integration. The USA and Canada have shown that when resettlement is something that is not just delivered by Government, but is a joint endeavour between NGOs, the community and businesses, refugees can be supported to integrate more quickly and effectively.

I was particularly inspired by the work of CMAS, an organisation based in Toronto, which provides support to nurseries and other early years settings focused specifically on the integration of newly arrived refugee and other migrant children. The resources it produces on supporting children’s emotional wellbeing include guidance on how to create a welcoming environment and how to support refugee children to cope with stress. CMAS promotes recognition of the specific needs of young refugee children and equips early years practitioners to deliver emotional support to children as they integrate. We should try to replicate their approach here in the UK.

Since I have returned from my travels, I have shared my findings with policy makers, practitioners and NGOs working directly with refugee children, and I am looking at ways to replicate some of the best practice that I observed. Our record of supporting refugees in the UK is impressive, but I am determined that my Fellowship will drive improvements that mean that children’s wellbeing is promoted and they are able to thrive in their new home.

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