Why a whole school approach to mental health support is vital for young refugees

By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

Refugees and people seeking asylum are forced out of their countries of origin by trauma, degradation and violence. They are all too often subjected to perilous migratory journeys, in addition to inhumane treatment in offshore processing facilities and detention centres. But even once these obstacles have been surmounted, and refugee status has been granted, trauma and stress continue to have a major effect on the lives of refugees -

So much so that pre- and post-displacement stressors contribute equally to the mental-health problems of refugee children.

In addition to dealing with past trauma; language, cultural and economic barriers can turn resettlement into a complicated and taxing process. For young refugees, such barriers can seriously impede their access to education. Young refugees are 12% less likely than the rest of the Australian population to complete secondary school.

According to the researchers who published this statistic, refugees who experience higher levels of discrimination are less likely to complete high school. This might seem like a common sense conclusion, but it is important to note that it doesn’t matter whether the discrimination was experienced pre-/post-flight, in school or outside of school. The effects of discrimination and mistreatment accumulate to progressively destabilise the individual. As such, it is vital that schools provide students with mental health support that is oriented to their status as refugees.

In fact, schools are ideally positioned for providing mental health support to children who are refugees. Mina Fazel and her colleagues at the University of Oxford published research emphasising the importance that schools offer adolescent refugees mental health services. The majority of the children they interviewed said that they would be happy to use a mental health service provided by schools. Unlike going to a separate clinic or hospital, the interviewees said that the prospect of accessing help at their school felt less intimidating, and that they would feel more comfortable with “opening up” in a familiar environment. In particular, children who had internalised mental health stigma said they were more likely to use mental health services provided by schools than hospitals.

Furthermore, Fazel and colleagues note that by locating mental health services in schools, it becomes easier for teachers to refer students who they may be concerned about. Other researches have highlighted the potential benefits of school counsellors receiving specialised mental health training for helping their students who are refugees. In particular, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been demonstrated as one of the most successful interventions for improving the mental health of young refugees. Researchers argue that school counsellors could feasibly be trained to provide this form of therapy.

Schools like Fairfield Public High and Holyroyd School (both Sydney) have been heralded as pioneers in the education of refugees. 40% and 65% of these schools’ students are from refugee backgrounds, respectively. Holyroyd “focuses first on supporting refugee students’ mental health and well-being”, and Fairfield has a part-time trauma counsellor. These schools have demonstrated that, when mental health is prioritised, refugee students do better - compared to students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds at other schools, Holyroyd students are more than twice as likely to receive first-round university offers.

State education departments do currently offer a number of programmes and initiatives that can support refugees in education, including provisions for mental health.  However, Holyroyd and Fairfield go above and beyond; seeing mental health support as integral to, rather than supplementary to, refugee education. These schools also show us that government support programmes work best when implemented alongside a whole school response. This means that, aside from dedicated mental health professionals, students and teachers must be aware about how they can best support refugee students. This includes a broad range of considerations - from being wary of lesson content and how the classroom environment might trigger stress responses (e.g. with respect to noise). Support and considerations should be tailored to individual students’ backgrounds.

On the whole, there has been a growing awareness that High Schools must make greater provisions for their students’ mental health. However, it is important that refugees experience comprehensive and tailored support from their schools. It seems that this will be a key factor in closing the education attainment gap between refugee and non-refugee children.

If you want to find out how you or your school can help to make improvements in refugee education through whole-school mental health support – check out Foundation House or Roads to Refuge.