Syrian refugees plagued by high rates of PTSD
A Syrian family walks after they arrived with other refugees from Turkey to the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, on a inflatable dinghy, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Petros Giannakouris)
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, November 25, 2015 4:58AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 25, 2015 6:16PM EST
OTTAWA -- Refugee children and adults around the world are plagued by high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, say Canadian mental health experts who hope more resources will be offered to Syrian newcomers.
Dr. Morton Beiser, a psychiatric epidemiologist from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says research indicates up to 20 to 50 per cent of refugee children suffer from PTSD, while 10 to 15 per cent of adults are affected.
"I don't think that we are sufficiently equipped yet to deal that," Beiser said. "It is important that we develop resources quickly and effectively ΓÇª We really have to get our act together."
Refugees who suffer from PTSD often relive their trauma, Beiser added.
"Post-traumatic stress disorder ... is an awful disorder," he said. "It is a disorder in which people experience horrible situations that they've been in, they're back in the torture cell, they're back being raped."
Mental health challenges for refugees also go far beyond PTSD, said Dr. Kwame McKenzie.
The medical director for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says newcomers also face higher risks of developing substance abuse problems, depression and schizophrenia.
"The truth is, the studies have shown that the rates of mental-health problems are increased, for every mental-health problem," he said.
McKenzie said he is pleased the federal government plans to help refugees settle immediately in host communities.
Unlike the 5,000 refugees who came to Canada from Kosovo in 1999, Syrians will not be housed on military bases unless it is deemed necessary.
"Some of the studies that have been seen worldwide say that you can decrease the risk significantly if you're careful about what you do when people come to the country," he said.
The effects of conflict, displacement, travel and family separation were all considered when the federal government crafted its plan, Health Minister Jane Philpott said Tuesday as the Liberals announced they intend to bring 10,000 refugees to Canada by year's end and another 15,000 by February.
"Mental health concerns are amongst the concerns that we expect to see," Philpott said.
The minister also said the government determined it would be in the best interest of refugees to ensure a quick transition into communities.
"We believe that as soon as they can get to their ultimate destination, that will be the better," Philpott said.
The challenge of mental health among Syrian refugees has been on the radar of government officials for several months, according to documents obtained through the Access to Information Act.
A Canadian clinical psychologist, Rebecca Dempster, gave a presentation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees core group on Syrian refugees to teach officials about dealing with trauma victims.
"The training offered insight into the impacts that traumatic incidents have on victims' memories," a senior policy analyst in the Immigration Department said in a email earlier this year.
"The presentation explored the psychosomatic responses and various recovery stages that trauma victims go through."
McKenzie said he hopes the Syrian refugee crisis will lead to a greater conversation about mental-health supports for newcomers.
"I really welcome the fact the government is interested in the mental health of Syrian refugees," he said.
"Syrian refugees are like most of the other refugees that we take in each year. Canada already takes in 25,000 refugees a year."
Mental-health services are a sound financial investment, McKenzie added, noting women, children and families are at the core of the government's pledge for Syrian refugees.
"From the children's perspective, for every dollar you put into mental health promotion, you're going to get $7 back," he said. "From an economic perspective it is a no brainer ΓÇª
"We haven't got all of the therapists we possibly need, but if we just connect up what we've got and then we try to build capacity, we should be able to offer a mental-health response that will make us what we should be, which is world leaders in this."
With files from Stephanie Levitz