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Specialised therapy for refugee children improves wellbeing, research finds

Unaccompanied children seeking asylum are at high risk of experiencing mental health problems but frequently fall through the gaps of services, but new research finds that specialised approaches can lead to ‘significant improvements’ to mental health.

01/03/24

Specialised therapy for refugee children improves wellbeing, research finds

New research highlights the positive impacts of specialised therapy for unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC).

Published today by Foundations – the What Works Centre for Children and Families – new research demonstrating the effectiveness of a form of specialised therapeutic support developed by the Refugee Council for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK.

In March last year, England recorded 7,290 unaccompanied children seeking asylum – 29% more than the previous year. This vulnerable group have often lost family members in conflict or have been separated from family and need appropriate support and, as such, are at higher risk of experiencing mental health problems. However, they frequently fall through the gaps of mental health services, or the available provision lacks the required sensitivity to their circumstances.

The Refugee Council’s My View Children’s Therapy showed significant positive impacts on the wellbeing of children through improvements in psychological wellbeing, reduced stress, enhanced anger management and improved mood. Positive changes were also noted in sleep patterns, diet, relaxation, exercise and social connections. Reflections and feedback from children who received the therapy were overwhelmingly positive, further highlighting the programme’s success in improving the lives of these children.

“I learned how to think about the future, about the present, and to plan for the future and to think better,” one user said. “I came out of those sessions, like, when I finished, I was a completely different person with a completely different view to life, and me being different,” another said.

As of March 2022, more than a fifth (21%) of unaccompanied children were not in school, in stark contrast to the 2% of all other looked after children. Over half (52%) of unaccompanied children placed in fully or semi-independent living were not in school. Deliberate self-harm and suicide attempts were also reported in up to 8% of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in a central London setting where the overall prevalence of mental health problems was 77%.

Researchers say these statistics highlight the imperative for proven support mechanisms for this vulnerable group, to guarantee their safety and stability. This is crucial for enabling them to develop the relationships necessary to thrive. The Department for Education recently announced more funding for a mentoring scheme for unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and the researchers argue that spending money implementing this approach could enhance the wellbeing and future prospects of this group.

As a result of the research, Foundations is calling for the programme to be made widely available, and for the next government to focus on proven and effective support to address the distinct challenges faced by vulnerable children.

“These findings clearly demonstrate the benefits of specialised therapeutic support for unaccompanied children seeking asylum,” Dr Jo Casebourne, Chief Executive of Foundations, said. “Amidst the current mental health crisis, every child should have access to wellbeing support that works.”

“Ensuring that mental health and wellbeing support is evidence-based must be a top priority for the next government. Let’s ensure every child can access support that works, empowering all vulnerable children to thrive”.

Faye Mehrgan, the National Manager for the programme, developed by the Refugee Council, said she was “extremely proud” of the support the service has given to many children and young people who come to the UK alone and in need of help.

“Providing a safe, confidential place for children to get well-being support through talking, individual creative work or group therapeutic support can be an absolute lifeline - the difference between someone having the chance to recover from all they have endured and not.”

“This service is currently only provided by the Refugee Council but with increased funding it could be delivered by others too and ultimately help even more vulnerable children."

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