October 06, 2014 | ABC News
Mental health care providers want better care for asylum seekers living in the community waiting on the outcome of visa applications.
Asylum seeker advocates have warned that uncertainty over applications was causing mental health problems, and long waiting periods have been blamed for what has been described as secondary trauma or “visa distress”.
Many asylum seekers spend years in immigration detention not knowing if they will get a permanent visa or be sent home.
The situation was considered worse for those processed while living in the community.
Unlike those in detention, access to mental health care is only provided if they have acute symptoms.
Greg Turner is a practising psychologist and the director of World Wellness Centre in Brisbane.
The practice offers free psychological care to refugees and asylum seekers in the community.
“Probably about 80 per cent of our clients are presenting with issues post migration, around visa distress,” he said.
“So it’s all about uncertainty.”
By the time these people get their visa, their cognition has been impaired in a major way and so their capacity to contribute to Australian society… is damaged.Greg Turner, psychologist
Shoukat Shauor is a Hazara Afghani who fled Pakistan on a boat, leaving behind his wife and one-year-old son.
Mr Shauor was placed in detention for a year before being granted permanent residency and now lives in Tasmania.
While his case has been resolved, he has been waiting three years to hear the outcome of a visa application for his family.
Mr Shauor said his family remained the target of Islamic States (IS) militants.
A suicide bomb blast tore through a Hazara town on Sunday, only blocks from where they live. They were unharmed but such incidents add to the toll of waiting.
“I’m still waiting for my family, I don’t know how long it will take,” he said.
Mr Turner said the impact of prolonged uncertainty and lack of control could be devastating.
“Because of this inability to predict or anticipate events and this uncertainty, people lose hope after a while,” he said.
“And basically they stop thinking, their thinking shuts down, their ability to learn English is severely damaged because you need very much intact cognition to learn.
“By the time these people get their visa their cognition has been impaired in a major way and so their capacity to contribute to Australian society – which is very much what they all want to do – is damaged.”
Support needed before symptoms become acute
Clarissa Adriel from the Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support Service believed, with such lengthy delays, there was an obligation to provide better mental health care to asylum seekers and refugees.
“The situation of waiting for a visa and not knowing when it’s going to be provided is similar to a helplessness and hopelessness that you can feel in other mental health conditions,” she said.
“As a country we have a choice about how we respond to people that apply for protection.
“Making the process as fast and as straight forward as possible will support people’s mental health.”
Ms Adriel wanted refugees to have access to help as soon as they needed it, rather than waiting until they present with acute symptoms.
“It’s important that as a community we don’t see this as something that’s inherent to asylum seekers or refugees or people from other countries,” she said.
“It’s a normal response to a really unusual situation.”
Mr Turner said he believed there was not enough mental health care provided to refugees and asylum seekers in the community who are waiting on the outcome of visa applications.
“The problem at the moment is this level of acuity that needs to meet entry requirements into the public health mental system,” he said.
“At the moment there’s nothing available for the sub-acute.”