New data on asylum seekers' mental health unsurprising
A report has revealed the first hard evidence of high levels of mental illness in Australia's camps for asylum seekers.
A new report has revealed the first hard evidence of high levels of mental illness in Australia's camps for asylum seekers.
The data has been collected by International Health and Medical Services which provides health care in the detention centres, including those on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
A Professor of Psychiatry at Australia's Monash University, Louise Newman, says the results are not surprising.
PROF. LOUISE NEWMAN: This is the first data that has actually been released about the offshore locations particularly and it is the first data related to the comprehensive screening process that was actually developed and then later introduced - developed by the expert committee which I chaired before we were disbanded by the current government. And we considered it was particularly important to get hard evidence about the mental health issues facing people in detention. There has of course been some work looking at that previously but noone has had access obviously to the offshore locations until recently. The results are not surprising in that they find very high levels of mental health problems and distress in detained populations. They find that mental health deteriorates related to time spent in detention and again it raises the issues within the system of detention about our treatment and management of really high-risk population groups.
SALLY ROUND: Does it also indicate that rates of depression, anxiety and stress and so on are higher in those offshore processing centres compared to those mainland ones?
LN:Yes, it does. Yes, I think that the offshore locations are particularly stressful environments. People placed in those environments are aware that they are processed under a very different system which is related to the legal framework of the country that they are in. They have been informed that the future is very uncertain, they are certainly informed that they will not be resettled in Australia, so it is a very different set of factors contributing to these high rates of stress and therefore of mental disorder. And of course on Manus Island, particularly, we have recently had behavioural breakdown with what appears to be actual physical attacks on asylum seekers by the people who are in a position of power who are meant to be caring for them. So these are highly-stressed environments and unsurprisingly in many ways we find higher rates of mental health problems in those locations.
SR: And it has been confirmed by the government that there is no psychiatrist, no full-time psychiatrist on Manus. What is the impact of that?
LN: Well, firstly I think the point is that it is incredible to think that we set up a system that is meant to be for the care and protection of vulnerable people where they need a full-time psychiatrist so that in itself is rather ironic. That being said of course these are people who have mental health needs and high levels of stress and yet the system does not provide that level of psychiatric care and it needs to be asked whether a location like Manus or Nauru for that matter can actually provide the level of treatment and support that is needed. I think it beggars the question of whether people who have high rates of mental health problems actually need to be treated on the mainland rather than assume that we can import treatment for them into countries with very limited health facilities. There are some practical difficulties of actually getting staff and psychiatrists and other specialists who would want to go and work in those locations given the hardship of the location, the terrible pressure of trying to treat and help people whose situation in many cases is somewhat hopeless, so it is not an easy solution of saying that we will find psychiatric and other clinical staff to immediately go into these locations.
SR: Is it going to be hard for the government to avoid this report?
LN: I think that remains to be seen. I would hope that it certainly raises alarms, that it certainly broadens the discussion that Australia needs to have about our treatment of asylum seekers. The mental health problems are some of the most severe problems facing these people and there are many in our community who I would hope are now going to have a little bit more insight into the problems that we are creating and really question the policy of transporting people to remote locations if this is the result.
SR: In recent days we have seen the first asylum seekers who have been found to be refugees resettled on Nauru. Will resettlement go any way towards easing high rates of mental illness in offshore processing centres?
LN: I think that is an open question at the moment. It is very unclear as to the location of resettlement, the conditions under which people will be resettled, what activities and supports will be available to them and of course how they themselves feel about living in Nauru. I think the details are not available currently. We certainly hope that becomes available. I think being able to be out of an enclosed detention environment is obviously an improvement but if there is no future and no opportunities for proper resettlement, integration into a community then of course people's distress will still remain so I think that's probably a little bit early, too early, to tell at the moment.
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