Italy: Mental health disorders in asylum seekers and migrants overlooked by inadequate reception system

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Rome A high number of migrants and asylum seekers are suffering from mental health disorders following experiences in their home countries, the trauma of the journey to Europe and due to the inadequate reception conditions in Italy, warned Médecins sans Frontieres (MSF) in a report published today.

MSF, which has been providing assistance in reception centres for asylum seekers in Italy for over 10 years, calls upon the Italian and EU authorities to prioritise the mental health of this particularly vulnerable population.

“Of 387 people interviewed during MSF’s psychological support activities 60 per cent presented with mental health disorders and 87 per cent of the 199 followed up during their time in the asylum system in Italy stated that the reception system was making their suffering worse, ” explains Silvia Mancini, public health expert and author of the report. “The asylum system is overwhelmed and the process very drawn out in Italy. This means that men, women and children are stuck in emergency reception centres for long periods of time. This uncertainty can trigger intense anxiety and other stress conditions.”

The report, titled Neglected Trauma, uses data collected between July 2015 and February 2016 in several emergency reception centres (CAS) in Rome, Trapani and Milan, as well as medical data collected during MSF’s regular activities in the centres of Ragusa Province, between 2014 and 2015. Among the 199 patients directly cared for by MSF’s teams in Ragusa emergency reception centres, 42 per cent presented with mental disorders associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and 27 per cent of patients were affected by anxiety. The likelihood of psychological disorders was shown to be 3.7 times higher among those who suffered previous traumatic events. 

According to the report, the living conditions in the emergency reception centres, set up in 2014 as an adhoc measure to accommodate the influx of arrivals, not with long term accommodation in mind, are among the main aggravating factors of mental health disorders amongst migrants and asylum seekers. Still, nearly two years into the so-called migration crisis in Italy, new arrivals often have no option but to stay for months on end in what was only ever planned as a temporary accommodation. This situation is further compounded by the fact that local healthcare services lack the resources required to provide appropriate care to asylum seekers and migrants and employ staff who are often not appropriately trained to identify their needs.

“Italian emergency reception centres are not set up to house people for long periods of time and should not be used for that purpose,” said Tommaso Fabbri, MSF Head of Mission in Italy. “There are very few translators or cultural mediators working within the system and this needs to change immediately. The communication barrier causes an unnecessary amount of stress and leads to increased feelings of isolation and precariousness amongst asylum seekers and migrants causing a whole lot of unnecessary suffering.”

MSF reiterates the need for a rapid improvement of services in the Italian reception system for migrants and asylum seekers.  There is a serious need to strengthen the existing psychological health care assistance available, including the employment of professionals trained in cross cultural psychology. There is also an urgent need to properly monitor the quality of facilities.

MSF has been present in Italy since 1999 and is currently focusing on the provision of psychological assistance to newly arrived asylum seekers and migrants in southern Italy in the emergency reception centres of Trapani and other disembarkation points, responding to their basic needs in Gorizia, and providing rehabilitation to survivors of torture in Rome. The organization also has teams on board three search and rescue ships in the central Mediterranean.