How young refugees’ traumatic pasts shape their mental health
Marteza Hasani fled Afghanistan in 2005 when he was six years old. During the war there, he found the beheaded body of his father, who had been killed by the Taliban, in front of his family home. That was the first of many unimaginable traumas he faced before arriving in Germany as a refugee in 2015. “I couldn’t get the image of my father out of my head,” he says.
Hasani is one of more than 100 refugees who have taken part in a study to examine how mental health can be damaged by such traumas — it is perhaps the largest and most detailed of young refugees’ psychological status carried out so far1. Young people who flee their countries are already at greater risk of developing mental-health problems than is the general population. Migration itself is known to be a factor in developing such disorders — but many refugees also experience violent and life-threatening events before and during their flight. The latest study is the first to try to quantify how these events affect psychiatric problems — and it finds that the risk of developing mental-health problems, and their severity, rises significantly with each accumulated trauma a person has experienced.
“The data are very impressive,” says psychiatrist Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany. It’s expected that refugees who have experienced more trauma would be at higher risk of developing mental-health issues, he says. “But the extent is remarkable.”