Migrants and COVID-19: How to take care of mental health

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Migrating usually involves a series of changes and adjustments for migrants and their families. Migrants need to adapt to new languages, cultures, traditions and social systems. These changes can cause a temporary increase in stress levels, that normally regulates itself with time as the individual adapts to the new circumstances, routines, and lifestyles of the destination country. However, when a crisis situation impedes migration, this adaptation process becomes much more difficult, which can lead to negative psychosocial consequences.

It’s not unusual that a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic could cause people to experience increased levels of stress, sadness, confusion, anger, or fear, independent of their migration status. It’s a new and unknown situation that, in the context of mitigation measures, has caused many changes and challenges in work and lifestyle dynamics for people all over the world. This is particularly true for migrant populations, who can be facing greater vulnerabilities or challenges.

Many migrants can experience uncertainty about their future, loss of loved ones or worry about their wellbeing, in addition to difficulties in accessing services and reliable information due to language barriers. Some people may also feel guilty because of family members or loved ones who live in higher-risk areas or they may fear being separated from their families because of quarantines.

Physical isolation measures can represent a challenge for anyone’s mental health. However, migrants also experience the aggravating factor of being away from home and far from support networks. Prolonged isolation can cause stress, burnout, emotional detachment, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, increased use of psychoactive substances, lack of concentration, indecision, decrease in productivity, lack of motivation at work, and/or low mood.

Stigma and discrimination are also likely to have a negative impact on the mental health of migrant populations, considering that they are often wrongly blamed for importing illnesses. Stigma can occur not only in the destination country, but also when they return to their country of origin. Migrants from countries or regions that have reported more cases of the virus are particularly vulnerable to this type of stigmatization.

Some people have been stranded in countries other than their country of origin or destination due to temporary border closures that were implemented as a response to the health crisis. These stranded migrants have particular psychosocial vulnerabilities that need to be specifically addressed. Migrant workers, especially those employed in the informal sector, may be experiencing increased economic difficulties due to loss of employment or sustenance.

Populations who live in shelters, camps, or similar environments can face difficulties in implementing necessary hygiene and physical distancing recommendations from health authorities due to limited access to personal hygiene products and the characteristics their housing infrastructure. Likewise, these populations often experience working and living conditions that carry more risks for their physical and mental health. Migrants, particularly those with irregular migratory status, can experience significant barriers in accessing timely healthcare in a language they understand. This includes access to testing to confirm or rule out COVID-19, as well as subsequent treatment. These situations can provoke heightened stress levels, worry, distress, and anxiety, among other negative psychological consequences.

If you work with migrants, these recommendations can help to promote mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak. Of course, it is always important to take into account the context in which your activities are taking place.

Facilitate the use of technology so that migrants can keep in contact with friends and family. It’s important to create spaces for people to share their emotions with trusted individuals.
Promote healthy lifestyles, including adequate food, sufficient sleep, and physical activity, including during isolation.
Encourage the avoidance of consuming tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs to deal with difficult emotions. Rather, facilitate migrants’ virtual access to mental health workers and support them in creating a plan for how and where to seek help if necessary.
Facilitate access to information from reliable resources in languages that migrants can understand, such that they can take reasonable evidence-based precautions.
Promote limited exposure to media reporting news about the health crisis, which can help reduce distress.
Support migrants in identifying skills they have used in the past to overcome adversity and facilitate access to the resources they need to put these habits into practice.
For more resources on supporting migrants’ mental health, visit the websites of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and the World Health Organization.

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