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Supporting the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees

SERENE – calm, peaceful, tranquil

Most of those who have come to Finland as asylum seekers and refugees have lived through  extremely hard experiences, both back in their home countries and when fleeing from there. Often, difficulties continue also in a new country, where e.g. prejudices, racism and problems of livelihood form a challenge.  For many, also the family’s situation remains long uncertain. Immigration, even at it best (when planned, taking place with enthusiasm and without force), means a great burden for one’s mental health, for the change is huge.

As for asylum seekers and refugees, they seldom have planned or wished to move. Sometimes they have had to flee unexpectedly, leaving behind all their belongings, and even their families. Although a very big share of them have experienced traumatic events, certainly not all of them are traumatized. We speak of traumatizing when the processing of a traumatic event is for some reason blocked. The symptoms of traumatic stress, caused by circumstance and environment, are, however, most common, and the need for information and support is great.

During 2012 to 2016, methods to support the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees were developed in the Serene project, run by the Southwest Finland Association for Mental Health. The project has ended since, but the work continues under the name of Serene. The purpose of Serene’s work is to further develop, spread and implement the created supportive methods.

Serene’s working methods are:

− For those who have been granted residence permit, group activities to improve the well-being of body and mind:

  •          Body and mind groups

− Functional group activities in reception centers, supporting mental health

  •           Nature groups promoting mental health
  •           Art workshops promoting feeling of safety
  •           Native language relaxation exercise groups

Initial information on mental health issues in reception centers and to quota refugees:

  •           Methods for asylum seekers to cope with in a crisis situation
  •           Stress management for asylum seekers
  •           Adaptation: the phases and emotions related to immigration
  •           Health of mind and body

Relaxation exercise recordings in different languages (Finnish, English, Arabic, Sorani Kurdish, Persian, Dari, Somali): Progressive muscle relaxation exercise, Relaxing breathing exercise and Safe place exercise can be listened to on the YouTube channel of the Turku Crisis Center.

− Training, induction and mentoring of professionals and volunteers

Body and mind groups

The Body and mind groups are planned to be used by professionals as a stabilising support method. In the groups, participants get information and train ways to contribute to the welfare of their own physical and mental health. Further to this, the groups provide participants a possibility to receive and render peer support. In the groups, emphasis is laid on the strong connection between physical and mental health – body has influence over mind and mind over body. The many fears and prejudices related to mental health may be relieved by bodily approach. Usually, aid is more easily sought for physical symptoms, and by relieving those it is also possible to affect mental health.

Nature groups

It is proved by researches that being out in nature and moving about there, especially in woodland, has positive effect on mental health. The Nature groups aim at providing a possibility to familiarise with nature and to learn to move about there. There is always something to listen, to look at, to touch, to smell and often also to taste in nature. Using one’s different senses makes it easy to concentrate on keeping to the present moment, without one’s mind being occupied with past sorrows or future worries. Nature offers a break from stress. Also, being with other people is  important. The Nature groups also stop for joint coffee breaks, giving one a chance to get acquainted with the other group members in beautiful surroundings.

Art workshops

By painting, drawing or making a collage of clippings, each member of the art workshops composes a picture of his or her individual safe places in which he or she feels good.

The art workshops aim at increasing the feeling of safety with the help of a functional, non-verbal safe place exercise. In addition to this, the aim is to offer the participants a possibility to concentrate for a moment in doing something with their hands, which helps to concentrate in the present moment. A third goal is being together, having a possibility to experience equality.

Relaxation exercises and groups

The relaxation exercises can be freely listened to on the YouTube channel of the Turku Crisis Center, and thus they can be used for independent relaxation. In reception centers, groups are organized for listening jointly to the exercise. The aim is for the group to provide a peaceful place and time for taking the exercise. A group may also be a nice way to familiarise with the exercise together with others. After the exercise, a joint tea break offers a possibility to get acquainted with others, or just to enjoy the company of others.

The input of volunteers is important

The groups created for Serene’s reception centers are led by Red Cross volunteers. The groups can be led by employees, too, but with their input the volunteers make it possible for the asylum seekers to get acquainted with other Finns as well, and not just the center’s staff. The volunteers have indeed been very successful in leading the groups in Serene. Serene’s group models are also applicable for other target groups met by volunteers or professionals in their work. The Body and mind group as such is planned to be used by professionals, but the material can be applied for volunteers’ use. All materials are available on the website of Turku crisis center.

The Southwest Finland Association for Mental Health is a non-governmenal organization, the aim of which is to promote mental health in Turku and its surroundings. This is done by maintaining the Turku Crisis Center and voluntary activities. The Turku Crisis Center produces and develops professional aid and mental health services.

Read more about Serene here.

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