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The impact of immigration detention on mental health - research summary

Beth Mullan-Feroze

This briefing summarises some of the key findings from a 2018 systematic review carried out by the Helen Bamber Foundation in partnership with academics and experts, looking at the body of research on the impact and mental health consequences that immigration detention may have on adults, adolescents and child immigration detainees. The aim of the review was to update and expand on a similar review conducted in 2009.

The briefing highlights key findings that might be most useful for those working with these groups, including those providing direct support and those designing services and policy.

There is significant and consistent evidence that refugees are more vulnerable to mental illness, particularly depression and PTSD, compared to the general population. In addition to pre-migration factors such as exposure to torture or human-trafficking, post-migration factors, including prolonged asylum procedures; prohibition from working; poverty; and poor housing are also significantly associated with poor mental health.

Detainees have been found to have high levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicidal ideation and deliberate self-harm were also common. Severity of distress is significantly greater in those who had been detained for relatively long periods. The time spent in immigration detention in a host country is a particular stressor because it entails both loss of liberty and the threat of forced return to the country of origin. It also is reminiscent for many of experiences they had in their country of origin or elsewhere where they have experienced harm.

The 2018 review aimed to document:

  1. the prevalence and types of mental health problems among child and adult immigration detainees and
  2. risk factors associated with mental health problems among immigration detainees.

It looked particularly for evidence about the possible effects of pre-existing trauma and/or mental health problems and of duration of detention.