Understanding the Mental Health Consequences of Family Separation for Refugees: Implications for Policy and Practice

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Abstract

Consistent evidence documents the negative impacts of family separation on refugee mental health and concerns for the welfare of distant family members and desire to reunite with family members as priorities for refugees postmigration. Less is known about refugees’ emic perspectives on their experiences of family separation. Using mixed methods data from a community-based mental health intervention study, we found that family separation was a major source of distress for refugees and that it was experienced in a range of ways: as fear for family still in harm’s way, as a feeling of helplessness, as cultural disruption, as the greatest source of distress since resettlement, and contributing to mixed emotions around resettlement. In addition to these qualitative findings, we used quantitative data to test the relative contribution of family separation to refugees’ depression/anxiety symptoms, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and psychological quality of life. Separation from a family member was significantly related to all 3 measures of mental health, and it explained significant additional variance in all 3 measures even after accounting for participants’ overall level of trauma exposure. Relative to 26 other types of trauma exposure, family separation was 1 of only 2 traumatic experiences that explained additional variance in all 3 measures of mental health. Given the current global refugee crisis and the need for policies to address this large and growing issue, this research highlights the importance of considering the ways in which family separation impacts refugee mental health and policies and practices that could help ameliorate this ongoing stressor.

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