Traumatic experiences after fleeing conflict
Mental health is a serious concern in many refugee camps and settlements. “Refugees often spend years, if not decades, in host countries. Their successful integration into the host society depends on their mental well-being,” says Adriana Franco Chitanana, LWF Country Representative in Uganda. “When social safety nets have unraveled, the psychological toll on the refugees can be severe.”
Joan, the young peer educator, has experienced terrible things herself. “Five years ago, I was married and pregnant when the rebels broke into our house at night, “she says. The armed men assaulted the young woman and killed her husband and brother. Later in the refugee settlement, Joan’s trauma manifested as depression.
Stigma and discrimination
In other cases, stress leads to violence. Many refugees come from conflict areas, Franco Chitanana says. “Traumatized individuals are prone to perpetuate violence, unaddressed mental health needs can hinder their ability to adapt, find employment, and contribute positively to their new communities,” the LWF Country Representative cites the report. “Cases of child neglect, alcoholism, and domestic abuse emerge.” Stigma and discrimination against persons with mental illness prevent people from seeking help.
According to the LWF assessment, caretakers of persons with mental illnesses generally seek help from traditional healers before taking their patients to hospitals; this often worsens mental disorders. “In South Sudan, we don’t grieve when we lose our loved ones; all you have to do is drink, and everything will be okay. You will forget,” says Lima Albino, a refugee from South Sudan. “Before the LWF therapy sessions, I used to hear women in the neighborhood crying at night due to their husbands’ alcohol-induced violence.”
Refugees are not helpless; they have agency and capacities to cope with adversities. – Adriana FRANCO CHITANANA, LWF Country Representative in Uganda
LWF integrates mental health and psychosocial support across different sectors, including health, education, livelihoods, and more. Various projects aim to improve access to resources and safety for vulnerable individuals and communities. Much of this work builds on inherent community resources.
“Refugees are not helpless; they have agency and capacities to cope with adversities,” Franco Chitanana finds. In the wake of an emergency, community members themselves are always the first to respond. LWF addresses the complex psychosocial consequences of displacement and war trauma by harnessing their knowledge and aptitudes.
For Joan, the young woman from South Sudan, the peer education program was an essential step in her recovery. She could talk about what had happened to her and her family for the first time among her peers. Today, she says that being able to help others and sharing her experience made her feel stronger.
“Supporting refugees’ mental well-being can contribute to social cohesion and conflict resolution. As we celebrate World Mental Health Day, let’s prioritize mental health services for refugees in Uganda as part of a fundamental humanitarian obligation and to uphold their basic human rights”, Franco Chitanana concludes.