In healing mentally, language barriers can be a massive setback for refugees

September 16, 2022

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), today, there are more than 100 million individuals who have been forcibly displaced because of war, violence, human rights violations, and persecution in their countries. 26.6 million of these individuals are refugees. This is the highest number ever recorded. 

When displaced people are in, or have fled these conditions, they become highly vulnerable to mental health issues, the most common being anxiety, depression, and PTSD. This calls for the need for psychotherapy, which in most cases is provided by international aid organizations. While it is easy to assume that psychotherapy is almost always effective because it is provided by renowned aid organizations and experienced psychotherapists, the reality is much different. 

Language barriers play a crucial role in providing psychotherapy to displaced individuals. Language is a strong means of connecting with a person, empathizing with their experiences, and treating them effectively. It would be extremely difficult to provide psychotherapy if the provider and the recipient do not speak the same language. It would take more time and effort to translate the language than to actually treat the person. Unfortunately, this is often the dynamic. In most cases, providers of psychotherapy use a translator to communicate psychotherapy to the recipient. But, how effective can this really be? 

Though local NGOs are often smaller and work on a smaller scale, their involvement in providing psychotherapy to those who need it is most beneficial. Not only do they know the language, they can also connect with psychotherapy patients since they have a mutual understanding of, and sometimes experience with, the harsh conditions in the country. 

In school, I have read dense chapters with substantial arguments about the shortcomings of the international aid system. Though the structure of the international aid system, with its many actors, can be very complex to make sense of, one thing is clear: Along with the size of aid, the quality, appropriateness, and effectiveness of aid also matters. 

In some of the cases that I have read, international aid organizations are unable to identify the problem and, therefore, the needs of the refugees. Organizations often send massive supplies of resources, such as food or clothing, which have already been provided in the camps. Instead of catering to the needs that have not been met, there is a misallocation of resources to those that already have.

Much like every other issue facing refugees, mental health is not something that can be solved immediately or provided disproportionately. Refugees of all ages are capable of experiencing mental health issues, and it is imperative that they receive help. 

Because of the wide range of issues that refugees face, from the moment they flee to the moment they are resettled, it is necessary to have a well planned, reliable aid system which can overcome the obstacles created by ineffective aid and that refugees can rely on.