As of 2020, there is an estimated 281 million migrants worldwide – with 7.6 million of those residing in Australia. Migration refers to the movement of individuals from one world region to another, with intent of settling temporarily or permanently. While some people may choose to migrate as a means of seeing the world and broadening their opportunities, others are forced to migrate for their safety and survival. When the latter is true, the distress associated with involuntary displacement is often the catalyst for what is referred to as migration trauma.
What is migration trauma?
While the migration process involves a number of adjustment stressors, migration trauma refers to the traumatic experiences of an individual prior to, during, or following migration. This can include political and religious oppression, war-related events, scarcity of food, physical and sexual assault, detention, persecution, forced separation from loved ones and racial discrimination. These experiences of serious injury, violence and threatened or actual death can have lasting effects on the lives of migrants and can significantly impair their ability to settle into their new environment and develop trusting interpersonal relationships. The impact of migration-related stressors contributes to the increased likelihood of various mental health conditions including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Substance abuse
- Serious psychiatric disorders
- Suicidal ideation
These conditions are often exacerbated by the loss of family, community, physical environment, and established routine – contributing to a sense of isolation and hopelessness. Furthermore, when migrants resettle in their host country, they are then tasked with adapting to a new place, language, and culture, all while attempting to re-establish their identity in uncertain and often unstable circumstances. It is easy to see how overwhelming this experience can be even before the consideration of trauma.
Treatment of migration-related trauma
While there is no one specific treatment approach for migration trauma, there a number of evidence-based trauma informed clinical interventions that can be applied to the various trauma-related disorders listed above. Principles of trauma informed interventions include the promotion of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual safety, supporting the establishment of trusting relationships, providing peer support, fostering resiliency and agency, development of adaptive coping mechanisms and trauma response, and promoting intersectionality. These interventions may include:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy à aiming to identify and remodel unhelpful thinking patterns and patterns of behaviour and learning
- Exposure therapy à confronting an anxiety provoking object or context in order to desensitise the distress response
- Narrative exposure therapy à creation of a verbal or written account of an individual’s traumatic experience, allowing them to adaptively re-process the trauma
- Cognitive therapy à identifying and restructuring distorted or inaccurate thinking styles that lead to distressing emotional responses
- Parent-child psychotherapy à strengthening of the parental bond allowing the caregiver to become the vehicle for the restoration of a child’s cognitive, behavioural and social functioning
- Art and expressive therapy à promotes the exploration of trauma responses, reactions and insights through pictures, sounds and movement (e.g., painting).
Migration trauma is a phenomenon that is often overlooked and under identified. Studies have shown that with early diagnosis and intervention, migration-related trauma disorders can be successfully treated.