Dr. Amit Bernstein’s interest in refugee mental health was piqued just over a decade ago, when forcibly displaced people—not only men and women, but young people and unaccompanied minors—started flowing into Israel from Eritrea and Sudan.
“They looked so resilient,” recalls Bernstein, a professor of clinical psychology with the School of Psychology, University of Haifa, in Israel. However, study after study showed that there was, Bernstein says, “a real public health crisis of mental health that we didn’t know about.” The refugees came from “extraordinarily, shockingly high rates of traumatic stress experiences”: torture, imprisonment, starvation, combat. Following the trauma and stress of forced migration, the refugees also struggled with post-displacement issues, including separation, grief, isolation, loneliness, fear, conflict, and no access to education or work.
A representative sample found that two-thirds of the population was struggling with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. In addition, up to one third were struggling with suicidality (up from the 3-19% for migrants who aren’t forcibly displaced).
“It’s very shocking. It’s a real crisis,” says Bernstein. “I had never seen numbers in any community with this kind of prevalence or severity of trauma and mental-health problems.”