New research reveals a key role for society to help reduce mental health problems amongst migrants and asylum seekers

Loneliness can kill. It leads to suicide but also raises the risk of a heart attack by more than 40 percent and increases the chances of premature death by up to 50 percent. Some estimates suggest that in England almost half the population feels some degree of loneliness at times. 

Imagine then the sense of isolation those who migrate to or seek asylum in the UK might feel. There’s a perfect storm brewing for loneliness to thrive.  Many will face issues around language, finance and culture not to mention having to deal with a sense of being unwelcome due to the government’s hostile environment policies. All this can add additional strain on those whose mental health may already be fragile because of what they have left behind. 

Some may experience grief, the trauma of violence and abuse. This can lead to far more cases of anxiety, depression and PTSD compared with the general population. Yet, this high risk group is less likely to get the support they need.  

New research carried out by the University of Sheffield has recently been published that  specifically focuses on a better understanding of loneliness among migrant and ethnic minority groups. Olivia Field, a member of the study advisory group says, ‘Our own research has found that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are at greater risk of experiencing certain factors that trigger loneliness and barriers to accessing support, such as feeling disrespected and not welcome.’ 

Researchers concluded that feeling lonely is intrinsically connected to having no social ties. This is a common problem for those who had migrated. In fact, they may well experience negative social interactions leaving them feeling undervalued and isolated. 

Initiatives such as shared identity social support appear to work well for those going through the immigration process. However, their positive impact can be diminished by broader problems migrants can face within society, so the report found.

These include being labelled an ‘asylum seeker,’ having no control over one’s future or experiencing unfriendly neighbours. Those who are highly educated but whose first language is not English can find their skill set is not acknowledged. Students from BAME backgrounds parachuted into predominantly white environments can feel they simply don’t belong. Including racism in all its forms.

The negative effects of past experience needs recognition, but loneliness and a sense of isolation can be aggravated by a raft of negative factors which come from within the general community. For example, migrants are not accessing healthcare because of the Government’s Hostile Environment. Research shows that migrants avoid seeking healthcare due to fears of being charged for NHS care, data sharing and other migration enforcement concerns. Complicated policies and a dearth of staff and patient knowledge about eligibility can mean many are deterred from seeking the care to which they are actually entitled, feeding a cycle that can create and recreate trauma. 

Instead of feeling safe and secure, asylum seekers face additional hoops to jump through even if their asylum application is successful. Right to rent checks, substandard housing and poverty go hand in hand with long waiting periods and confusion over rules and regulations. For others, there can also be a constant threat of deportation which can lead to a sense of rejection, discrimination and hostility. All these factors create ideal conditions for loneliness and desperation to fester. 

Those who have had their asylum claim refused have the same right of access to primary care as those who hold a UK visa. However, most mental health services come under the secondary care umbrella where many migrants come up against further restrictions, NHS charges, and the possibility of data-sharing with the Home Office. 

They may find it hard to register with a GP often because health practitioners don’t understand the regulations. Even if they succeed in accessing support from their GP, waiting lists for therapy are likely to be long. Estimates show that between 5 and 30% of asylum seekers have been tortured, leading to a group often in need of specialist help and social support that simply isn’t there. 

The conclusions reached in the research carried out by the University of Sheffield call for a holistic approach to tackle isolation amongst migrants without medicalising them. Sarah Salway, one of the research team members, concluded, ‘Varied opportunities for social connection within and across ethnic groups must be created and concerted efforts to tackle inter-personal and institutional racism are needed.’

As well as this, the report also calls for targeted and tailored interventions which are a better fit for individual needs along with the engagement of the general public in an effort to increase neighbourliness. More focus on how society as a whole can help reduce loneliness could translate into the marginalised being treated as equals, empowering rather than stigmatising focusing on resilience and strength not on vulnerability.