Sweden: MSF begins working with asylum seekers

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) began supporting asylum seekers in Götene municipality in Sweden with mental health and psycho-social activities, on Monday.  The project comes following an assessment of asylum seekers’ needs in Sweden and uses an innovative and culturally sensitive model of care that prioritises early intervention. Working alongside an existing network of volunteers, the project seeks to highlight the need for mental health services for asylum seekers in the country and prove MSF’s model of mental health care in Europe.

A normal reaction to an abnormal situation

“Many asylum seekers in Sweden are suffering from mental health problems simply because they’ve suffered too much. In many cases they’ve lived in constant fear for months or years before making it to safety, they’ve endured unspeakable violence, they’ve lost family members, they’ve risked their lives at sea and they’ve put up with an undignified welcome here in Europe,” said Jenny Gustafsson, MSF project coordinator in Götene. “Their symptoms are completely normal reactions to the abnormal situation they find themselves in but there are clear gaps in mental health services for them in Sweden. As MSF, we have the expertise and resources required to provide the care they need, so we’ve decided to jump in alongside Swedish civil society groups, the local municipality and health care authorities to contribute.”

MSF has increasingly focused on mental health care and in 2015 offered psychosocial support to more than 220,000 patients all over the world, including in many of the countries those seeking asylum in Sweden originally fled or passed through on their journey north through Europe. Mental health needs among asylum seekers are higher than in the general population, mainly due to the trauma and uncertainty they’ve experienced, but can be managed with the right care.

Timely and culturally sensitive care

With 163,000 men, women and children fleeing to Sweden last year, Sweden is one of the top destinations for asylum seekers in Europe and has been struggling to meet the mental health needs of new arrivals. One of the main aims of MSF’s project in Götene is to demonstrate that there is a way to provide mental health care to asylum seekers, including vulnerable groups like unaccompanied minors, that doesn’t over burden the local health system or lead to long waiting times for specialised care.

The MSF model of care in Sweden focuses on early intervention, including group counselling and individual sessions and has already proven successful in other countries. The team in Götene, made up of counsellors and cultural mediators (who speak the languages and understand the culture of the countries the asylum seekers have fled), will complement their psycho-social activities by building a network of volunteers to help asylum seekers access other services and to feel more at home in the local community. The team will be led by a psychologist who will be in charge of assessing people in need of more specialised care and referring them to local mental health services.

“MSF works with refugees and other migrants all over the world and we see the real difference that early intervention and psychological first aid can make in the lives of people going through immense challenges,” Gustafsson explains. “Our staff will give the asylum seekers the tools they need to deal with their experiences and help them get on with their lives here in Sweden.”

The project in Götene will run until next April in close collaboration with local health authorities, and the Swedish Migration Agency.

MSF is currently working with asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants in Italy, Greece, Serbia and France and has teams on board three rescue boats in the Mediterranean Sea. MSF teams will continue to assess mental and physical health needs for new arrivals elsewhere in Europe and intervene as appropriate.