Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Look at How Psychology Can Help and Support Refugees


by: Marcela Olavarria Turner, M.A., C.Psych. Assoc.

In recognition of World Refugee Day, we want to highlight how psychology can help and support refugees in their journey to building their lives in Canada. According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of 2016, there are 121,267 refugees and asylum seekers in Canada alone, and a sky rocking 67.75M refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees, stateless and vulnerable persons worldwide. Before arriving at a receiving country, many refugees experience things such as war, violence (sexual, physical and psychological), torture, political repression, and multiple losses. They can also experience harsh conditions while transitioning to a safer place, such as more exposure to violence, separation from loved ones, uncertainty about their own and loved ones' safety, doubt about both their future and about the outcome of their migration. 

Despite these experiences, refugees show remarkable ability to adapt and cope with such adversity. Nonetheless, once refugees have arrived in safer places such as Canada, they can still experience temporary or enduring difficulties as a result of migratory experiences and stressors related to adapting to a new social, economic and cultural environment. These difficulties might be: 

  • Physical: difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, muscle tension, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, decreased or increased appetite, etc.
  • Emotional: intense fear and feeling of insecurity; mood swings; irritability; overwhelming emotions; anger and sadness
  • Changes in thoughts: changed sense of how you perceive yourself, the world, others, and how you relate to others; demoralization, disillusionment; helplessness and/or hopelessness;
  • Changes in behaviour: restlessness; moving or speaking very slowly; withdrawal; being easily startled;  


If you can relate to the portrait painted above, know that you are not alone. There are professionals and organizations that can (and want to) help. 

Psychology can help reduce the impact of some previously noted difficulties by using proven and effective treatment strategies that respect cultural background and the strengths present in each individual. Psychological services help people heal fostering psychological coping strategies, connections through a social support system and keeping active. Therapy is a safe place to learn about and explore one's mental health struggles while strengthening one’s capacity to adapt to challenging life events.

CFIR's refugee assessment services provide psychological and neuropsychological assessments for those individuals facing Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) reviews. For more information, please visit our Immigration & Refugee Assessment Service page.
As a refugee, if you need additional support, consider also consulting the ‘Services for Refugee Claimants in Ottawa’ online document.