PTSD in Refugees and Treatment

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa, Central and South America have settled in the United States since 2000. As a result, the delivery of mental health services must take into consideration the influx of refugee resettlement in the country and the effects of migration within this demographic. Being able to recognize, prevent, and appropriately treat mental health problems in this specific population requires attention to the various differences in risk factors, cultural norms, language barriers, and coping mechanisms.

How does immigration impact mental health? Often the traumatic reasons for leaving their homeland, coupled with any dangers encountered on their journey, and the resettlement process all contribute to an increased risk for mental health disorders for refugees. Though some refugees may have a simple journey to their destination, others may encounter forced migration, years of persecution or war, smugglers, tumultuous refugee camps, sexual assault, death of family members, or loss of culture and supportive structures. The most prevalent mental health disorders that occur within the refugee population include: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, and somatization. The challenges in providing therapy to this population include language barriers, cultural biases, access to therapeutic services, and lack of cultural sensitivity.  To address these traumatic experiences, refugees would benefit greatly from culturally appropriate therapeutic interventions that address their specific needs as marginalized communities. For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) as an effective evidence-based therapeutic intervention used to treat PTSD symptoms.

EMDR is an evidence-based therapy for PTSD and is one of the most effective treatment intervention for trauma survivors. EMDR therapy works by processing traumatic memories to help the individual relieve distress, reformulate negative beliefs, and reduce the psychological impact of trauma. Essentially, EMDR allows the mind to resolve emotional pain, just as the body is able to recuperate from physical pain. Numerous studies suggest that individuals utilizing EMDR can reap the benefits of psychotherapy in a much shorter period of time than other therapeutic approaches. An additional benefit of EMDR, for the refugee population, is that talking is a minimal requirement compared to traditional talk therapy, thus making language barriers less of an obstacle. The frequency and duration of EMDR would depend on the individual, their risk factors, and their treatment goals, which will be determined on a case-by-case scenario.Depending on the symptoms presented, EMDR may be used in conjunction with various other evidence-based therapeutic modalities. To benefit from EMDR services, prospective patients can look into receiving treatment in Mental Health Rehabilitation Centers. EMDR treatment can be provided as an integral part of Residential Treatment, Intensive Outpatient Programs, or as stand-alone services through their outpatient programs.