A recent policy paper published by Unesco calls for schools to act as early warning centers for refugee students with mental-health needs. The report says teachers should be trained to recognize the signs of displacement trauma and provide intervention. While the paper is focused on teachers and schools, its findings also appear relevant at the university level.
The move is welcomed by experts, who say that the earlier mental-health treatment begins, the more effective it is.
“Given that 50 percent of all mental-health problems start in adolescence, it seems wise to get the prevention work started early,” says Justin Thomas, a professor of psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. “A new breed of teachers could well be the key to reversing the mental-health crisis.”
Refugees often leave their homes under very stressful conditions—sometimes witnessing extreme violence, perhaps leaving loved ones behind or undertaking perilous journeys on foot. The Unesco paper says these experiences can lead to long lasting effects such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
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The statistics back this up by showing high rates of mental-health problems among refugees compared to the populations of the countries that host them. For example, approximately 40 percent of adult refugees and 20 percent of child refugees in Germany suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the report.
Refugee students are not the only ones grappling with mental-health issues. A 2018 study showed that 25 percent of young people in greater Beirut are suffering from mental-health problems. They would also stand to benefit from early interventions in schools if such treatment programs were available. (See a related article: “Study to Map Mental-Health Needs of Lebanese Youth.”)
Some of the Unesco paper’s recommendations suggest creating the best atmosphere in classrooms for refugee students to feel safe and secure again. “Whether in high-income countries or emergency settings, learning environments must be safe, nurturing and responsive,” said the report. Practically, that means ensuring students are fed, are physically safe and feel welcome.
On top of that, the report recommends what it calls “supportive generalized activities,” which include art, drama and mindfulness classes to be run by teachers or other professionals. (See a related article: “Iraqi Researchers Use Art to Help Sexual Violence Survivors.”)
“Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, for example, is typically only offered to people once they have overcome their depression, but the idea is to prevent future episodes,” says Thomas. But he’d like to see this change—in line with the report’s recommendations—rolling out such programs earlier to populations believed to be at risk of mental-health problems.
The policy paper also endorses further training for teachers so that they might recognize the symptoms of a student in need. For example, a student may appear to be disruptive or uninterested during lessons, but that could be a sign that help is needed.
With sufficient training, teachers would be able to identify these at-risk students and refer them to mental-health professionals where access is available.
Fadi Maalouf, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, says the report’s recognition of the role of teachers is significant.
“It is highlighting the importance of supporting teachers’ well-being, which is often neglected in some interventions,” he says. “For our children to thrive well in schools, we need to also pay attention to the teachers.”
Early intervention not only offers the chance to improve the lives of those directly affected by mental-health problems, but it could also boost national development. Research has shown that mental health is the single largest source of economic burden caused by any disease in the Arab world. (See a related article: “Anxiety and Depression Often Overshadow Arab Youth.”)
Efforts to reduce this burden among refugees should also help the wider community.