Struggles of refugee students

A new study led by Dr Melanie Baak of the University of South Australia has highlighted the hidden mental health struggles of refugee students in Australian secondary schools, writes journalist Jessica Willis.

The mental health issues of students with a refugee background are particularly difficult for staff and teachers to recognise due to factors such as stigma, cultural and linguistic barriers, teachers’ fear of stereotyping students and difficulty identifying warning signs, according to the study.

Young people from refugee backgrounds have an increased risk of mental health issues, particularly from traumatic experiences related to: forced migration; racism; family and living circumstances; language and social barriers; and difficulties adjusting to the school setting.

Confidence to engage with diversities

The study found a major barrier to identifying and supporting students with mental health issues is navigating cultural and linguistic diversities – especially if there is a strong stigma around mental health and wellbeing.

It can also limit young people seeking help as they may have great difficulty expressing their feelings and can be worried about confidentiality.

Participants in the study noted young people may not share their issues with their families and the families may resist sharing information with the wider community.

Baak said while there can be differences in the presentation of mental health issues in these students, school staff may also not be as confident in responding to them.

“What we found from our research was that teachers were more likely to respond to certain behaviours such as silence and withdrawal, with ‘that’s because they are a refugee’, Baak said.

“So they are not responding in the same way they might with another student.

“Often there are also fears about reaching out to and communicating with families, particularly where there are cultural stigmas around mental health and not wanting students to get into trouble at home,” Baak said.

Fear of talking about trauma

The study found school staff could be fearful of bringing up past trauma if they asked about the student’s mental health.

Many respondents also believed refugees’ problems disappear when they arrive in Australia.

Baak said while it is important to be aware of potential past traumas, not every student has the same experience.

She said it is also critical for teachers to recognise there can be numerous current stressors, ranging from home life situations to widespread negative media coverage relating to refugees, that can cause ongoing trauma.

“What we find overwhelmingly though, if you ask a student with a refugee background about themselves they won’t tell you anything they don’t feel comfortable with, so you aren’t demanding that they tell you every single detail about their refugee experience,” Baak said.

“But by asking them general questions like ‘are you okay?’, ‘how are you going?’, ‘what can I do to support you?’, you are opening up an essential conversation,” she said.

Building strategies inclusive of families

Overall, the study found there was a limited awareness of appropriate mental health services and referral pathways amongst school staff.

Schools can improve outcomes for students by connecting with services in the local community, particularly specialist services which are focused on service provision for culturally and linguistically diverse clients.

These connections should be developed by school staff; students should not be expected to manage it by themselves. Baak said for many of these students it is not just a case of ringing mum and dad – it requires additional ways of accessing support.

“This is where we find schools which have mental health practitioners who come in and work on campus are doing really well because they are making supports accessible,” she said.

Baak recommended a number of dedicated services across Australia, such as:

  • Queensland Program of Assistance to Survivors of Torture and Trauma (QPASTT)
  • NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors
  • AMES Australia (Victoria)
  • Foundation House (Victoria).

Improved teacher training in identifying the subtle signs of mental health, as well as better care programs inclusive of families and dedicated bicultural workers, can help communication and understanding between students, families and school staff and provide links to external providers.

Strategies involving parents and families in mental health discussions may be more important than is currently recognised, the study found.

Dr Baak has been involved in refugee and migration issues, as a service provider and as a researcher, since 2004. She convenes the Migration And Refugee Research Network (MARRNet) which brings together academics, service providers and government policy makers to explore issues around migration, refugees and resettlement.

Further reading
The full study can be found in the Journal of School Health. Baak M, Miller E, Ziersch A, Due C, Masocha S, Ziaian T. (2020) ‘The role of schools in identifying and referring refugee background young people who are experiencing mental health issues’, Journal of School Health. 90: 172-181. DOI: 10.1111/josh.12862