World Mental Health Day on 10 October, and the whole of October, is an important time to draw attention to various forms of mental illness. Refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are traumatized, are a particularly affected group but are often forgotten in the public debate about mental health.
To shed light on this important topic, the UN Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) in Brussels and the Information Services (UNIS) in Geneva and Vienna organized the third joint Ciné ONU online event with the film Wake Up on Mars, followed by a virtual discussion on 7 October.
Wake Up on Mars follows the Demiri family, who have fled Kosovo and are seeking asylum in Sweden. The film tells the story of the family of six (Mum Nurje, Dad Muharrem, sisters Djeneta and Ibadeta, and brothers Furkan and Resul) as they make their last possible application to stay in Sweden as refugees. If this application is rejected, they face the risk of deportation. Such is the gravity and stress of the situation facing the Demiris that their daughters, Djeneta and Ibadeta, are suffering from a condition known as ‘Resignation Syndrome’, where the body shuts down to a coma-like state in reaction to feelings of extreme hopelessness.
Film director, Dea Gjinovci was joined on the panel by Linköping University Professor Emerita Elisabeth Hultcrantz and UNHCR Senior Mental Health Expert Peter Ventevogel, while Martin Nesirky, Director of UNIS Vienna, moderated the discussion.
Mr Nesirky introduced the discussion, underlining the work of the UN in raising awareness of the need to invest more in mental health ahead of World Mental Health Day. Resignation Syndrome first appeared in Sweden in the 1990s. The condition is rare and remains enigmatic, with Ms Hultcrantz pointing out that medical experts debated for years over whether the condition was even real. Only a few countries recognise, and know how to treat, the illness, despite its severe effects. Affected individuals (predominantly children and adolescents) first experience anxiety and depression, before deteriorating into an unconscious stupor, where they can remain for several years.
Such is the bleakness of the condition that Ms Gjinovci chose to focus her film not only on Djeneta and Ibadeta, but on 10-year-old Furkan and his dream to go to Mars. Her aim was to create a story that contained hope alongside anguish, and that had something everyone could relate to: a childhood dream. Given that the condition predominantly affects children, Ms Gjinovci also wanted to tell the story through a child’s eyes, allowing the viewer to experience a balance between childish wonderment and acute desperation.
Whilst the exact causes of Resignation Syndrome remain an enigma, it is generally thought to be brought on by a severe lack of hope and intense stress, fuelled by extremely distressing asylum processes, previous traumatic events, and social exclusion. According to Ms Hulcrantz “these children are predisposed to Resignation Syndrome because of what they have gone through. Losing hope leads to the lack of a will to live.”
Mr Ventevogel praised Wake Up on Mars for highlighting the intense psychological difficulties refugees and asylum seekers face. He explained that what is necessary for good mental health in populations generally is also necessary for asylum seekers. A lack of control over their lives negatively affects asylum seekers’ mental health, particularly if they have already faced severe trauma.
To help reduce cases of Resignation Syndrome and poor mental health in asylum seekers, humanitarian agencies must strengthen asylum seekers’ agency, as well as provide them with social support and social connectedness. Talking is also very important, with Mr Ventevogel arguing that mental health agencies and psychotherapy should be made available to those seeking asylum. Indeed, it was a need to talk that helped inspire the making of Wake Up on Mars, with Ms Gjinovic explaining how her Albanian heritage meant “I was one of the only people outside the family that the mother could communicate with. This opened a need to communicate; a need to be understood.”
According to Secretary-General António Guterres, “Addressing mental health is central to achieving Universal Health Coverage. Yet, on average, governments spend less than 2% of their health budgets on mental health. As a result, far too few people have access to the mental health care they need. This has to change. We cannot ignore the need for a massive scale-up in investment in mental health. We must act together, now, to make quality mental healthcare available to all who need it.”