Germany turns refugees into mental health counsellors for their peers
On the top floor of a former US army barracks in Schweinfurt, Germany, a Somali refugee called Abdi Mohamed is standing in front of a colourful chart which says: “Stress: Causes, Signs and Coping Strategies”.
Mohamed is running a small group therapy session, together with Parisa Moayedi, a colleague from Iran. “What do you feel when you get stressed?” Mohamed asks two recently arrived asylum seekers from Somalia.
This building housed US servicemen during the cold war. It has been converted into a medical centre with green tile floors and examination rooms for the paediatricians and doctors in charge of screening newly arrived asylum seekers. A sign posted outside lists the distances back to where some of the people milling around the base began their journeys to Germany: Kabul, 5,007km; Damascus, 2,815; Kiev, 1,445.
Quietly, a tall, thin young man says he forgets important appointments and loses his appetite. Next to him, another young Somali wearing a pressed button-down shirt and dark jeans says he gets headaches and has trouble concentrating. “That’s good to recognise,” Mohamed says encouragingly. “Can you think of some things you can do to make yourself feel better?”
The session is part of the first mission Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has ever launched within Germany. A pilot project to train refugees as psychosocial peer counsellors, the goal is to teach coping skills and stress management while giving new arrivals someone to talk to about their troubles.
Officially launched in March in cooperation with a local hospital in Schweinfurt, the project is one of a small but growing number of programmes aimed at addressing the near-total lack of mental health services for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany since 2015.
When the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, gave her “we can do it” speech two years ago, MSF quickly realised there was a huge gap in mental health care – even in wealthy Germany.
Many newly arrived refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; a 2015 estimate by Germany’s largest association of psychotherapists indicated up to 40% of refugees had symptoms of depression or anxiety related to the situation back home or their difficult journeys.
Left untreated, such disorders can be crippling, costly and potentially dangerous. Several recent attacks in Germany allegedly involved asylum seekers or refugees with untreated mental health problems.
Source: The Guardian
Photograph: © Unsplash