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May 21, 2020

Raising awareness about mental health in the world's largest refugee camp

world mental health day poster in kutupalong

Providing mental health services to refugees is a foundation of humanitarian aid. Refugees are often victims of war, assault, extortion and many other traumatic experiences that leave lasting scars if untreated. In just a flash, their lives can change forever. Helping refugees understand their trauma and learn healthy coping mechanisms helps them continue along their journeys to safety. 

With the size and complexity of a city, Kutupalong refugee settlement in Bangladesh is the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees. Many of these refugees fled Myanmar in 2017 to escape persecution. When they arrived in Bangladesh, many had experienced violence or lost loved ones. 

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency understands the toll that being forced to flee can have on refugees. In Kutupalong, newly arrived refugees have access to first-aid mental health services. Trained psychologists and counselors, like Mahmuda, listen to refugees’ stories and help them cope with their experiences. 

“All the refugees have gone through many traumatic experiences,” Mahmuda says. “They have walked for three or four days, or they have come by boat… they have seen slaughter, shooting, torture, rape… they have seen everything.”

mahmuda working with a rohingya refugee

Mahmuda’s primary role as an educational psychologist is to listen to what newly arrived refugees have gone through and reassure them that they are safe. Refugees can often develop anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that makes it difficult to resettle and rebuild their lives. By identifying signs of PTSD early on and reinforcing feelings of safety and support, Mahmuda prepares refugees for their new lives in the settlement.

“You are alive,” she tells them. “You are safe. You are not alone. We are with you.”

A large number of refugees in the camp are children, who face their own unique challenges when it comes to mental health. Some children in Kutupalong have spearheaded a mental health project to help them cope with their anxieties and sadness. The children work through group exercises where they practice sharing their feelings and discussing their experiences.

abdul smiles in his classroom

Abdul, a 16-year-old participant in the project, shares how the group has helped him overcome the taboo of sharing his feelings. “Men and boys here are used to hiding their feelings,” Abdul says. “It was something like a weakness to ask for help. But now we’re not reluctant.”

When Adbul lost his father, the group helped him come to terms with his loss and overcome the feelings of frustration and sadness he was dealing with daily. As part of the group, Abdul has also grown as a leader — using his experiences to help other children cope with their own losses. 

How you can help...

During Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s important to bring attention to the invisible damage that displacement can leave on a person. By becoming a monthly donor, you can help fund mental health services and projects in camps like Kutupalong to help refugees overcome their trauma as they begin rebuilding their lives.