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“I was made to feel like a liar and a criminal”: The mental health toll of age assessments

A new study finds that the age assessment process has a profound and harmful impact on the mental health of unaccompanied children seeking asylum.

17/05/24

“I was made to feel like a liar and a criminal”: The mental health toll of age assessments

Clinical psychologists say that the age assessment process has a “profound and harmful impact” on the mental health of unaccompanied children seeking asylum.

The assertion follows a study by the Helen Bamber Foundation, which analysed data of 32 young people whose age was disputed and 52 whose age was not. It found that the children seeking asylum whose ages were disputed (32 young people) showed higher levels of psychological distress, with some even reporting experiencing suicidal thoughts.

“It's really stressful. Then they tell you, you are lying. Like, make you, like you may kill yourself, you think like that,” Isaac (whose name has been changed) said.

Isaac says he was always honest about his age but was made to feel like he was lying: “I'm serious. I'm four years, I'm waiting, like I told everyone the truth. When they say [I’m] lying until now, like I've never ever told [them] another different age. But they say your age is like this.”

Researchers held a focus group with age-disputed young people who described the process as “hostile” and “threatening” and explained the disruption it caused to their lives.

Local authority assessments are supposed involve gathering a range of evidence from which to take a view on age. However, the research highlights that in many age assessments there is still an overemphasis on physical appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour.

“Because then I haven't grown a beard, I looked young, but my voice was very deep, and they said ‘You have so much confidence in you. The way you speak, you don't skip any words’. And I was like, it's because I've been living on my own since I was 12. I've been feeding myself, I've been going to work, come back home, and feed myself. What do you expect? Do you think that's a joke? That's not a joke,” Amara (name changed), a young person from Ethiopia said.

How old a child is inevitably affects their access to accommodation, education and services. In addition to preventing them from receiving the support they need, the long, drawn-out process of age assessments conducted by local authorities made the children feel like they are stuck in limbo, leaving them feeling frustrated, hopeless, and detached from others. Age disputes also impact meaningful therapeutic engagement and recovery from mental health difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic bereavement, and anxiety.

Being repeatedly questioned can undermine relationships with social workers and other professionals, damaging trust, and a young person’s sense of identity. The young people in the study described being unfairly regarded as deceitful and manipulating the system to gain access rights to which they were not entitled. This perception hindered their willingness to seek out support. Relationship ruptures with social services caused by the age dispute process prevent the establishment of safe and protective relationships with safe adults, in a population of children who have commonly experienced traumatic separation, death, or abuse by primary caregivers. The clinical psychologists involved warn that this can be re-traumatising and can have long-term impact on trust and interpersonal relationships.

As a result, the Helen Bamber Foundation recommends instead specialist trauma psychological assessments and therapies to young people who present with mental health difficulties. They say that research has shown that by using a holistic, child-friendly and trauma-informed approach, the age determination process can be more accurate, and reduce the harm to children in the process.

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