Psychologists Are Designing Refugee-Focused Therapies For Migrants

Europe’s migrant crisis is forcing the advancement of new psychological therapies that go beyond existing treatments to help victims not of one traumatic event, but of multiple traumas such as rape, war and torture.

Among the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn areas, significant numbers are likely to have severe psychiatric illnesses, including complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

PTSD plagues sufferers with flashbacks and panic attacks, and can render them sleepless, emotionally volatile and less likely to be able to settle into a new home.

Deploying mainstream therapies designed for victims of single-event trauma in stable, well-funded settings – such as returning soldiers or car crash survivors – will not tackle this migrant mental health crisis effectively, specialists say.

So therapists in Europe are honing their skills in relatively new, refugee-focused psychological techniques such as Narrative Exposure Therapy and Intercultural Psychotherapy.

Italian psychotherapist Aurelia Barbieri is one of a handful of volunteer mental health experts on Europe’s front line.

Working with charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in makeshift arrival camps in Sicily, she gives what she calls “psychological first aid” to migrants arriving after months or years making their escape through the desert, through Libya, across the sea.

“They often say they have been imprisoned, beaten all day long, shot at, or scalded with boiling water. They’ve been treated like beasts,” she said in a telephone interview.


Almost half of 23 refugees assessed by doctors in Dresden, Germany met the diagnosis for PTSD, according to research published in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry in November.

In Sicily’s Ragusa province, MSF says screening showed almost 40 percent of those suffering mental health effects had PTSD. “They have terrifying flashbacks. They think they’re going mad,” said Barbieri. “What I hope to do is first of all is listen. —> Read More