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The Link between Refugee Youth Mental Health and Unemployment in Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Meaning of Mental Health, Mental Wellness, Mental Illness, Mental Disorders

Mental health has become an increasingly significant concern in Africa in recent years. Traditionally, within African belief systems and culture, mental health and wellness were not recognized as integral to healthcare or essential components of the well-being of children and youths. However, due to recent advancements in science, medicine, and social awareness, mental health and wellness are now acknowledged as crucial elements of individual and societal development. This recognition has laid the groundwork to uncover the dynamics between unemployment and mental health among working age youths in Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Youths sitting in a circle, people sitting down
RAI staff enjoying wellness retreat and teambuilding activities with other organizations' members from the We Lead Project 2023.

Mental health refers to a person's emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It involves the individual's ability to handle stress, relate to others, make choices, and function effectively in daily life. Mental health is a dynamic state that can change over time and is influenced by various factors, including biological, environmental, and social factors.

Mental wellness, on the other hand, refers to a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their community. It goes beyond the absence of mental disorders and encompasses the overall positive mental state of a person.

Mental Illness refers to a wide range of conditions that affect a person's thinking, feeling, behavior, or mood. Mental illnesses are diverse, and can vary in severity, duration, and the specific symptoms experienced. Examples of common mental illnesses include: depression, eating disorders, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Mental Disorders, also known as psychiatric or mental health disorders, are medical conditions that affect a person's thinking, feeling, behavior, or mood. Mental disorders" and "mental illness" are terms that are often used interchangeably, and they both refer to conditions that affect a person's mental health. Examples of mental disorders include anxiety and mood disorders.

Past and Recent Findings on Refugee Youth Mental Health & Emotional Wellbeing

According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), post-traumatic stress disorder is the most common type of mental illness seen in Kakuma, especially among new arrivals from South Sudan fleeing the ongoing conflict in that country. Unfortunately, few recent statistics have been published on the mental health state of refugee youths in Kakuma refugee camp or Africa in general.

Another study by Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology scholars, titled "Exploring the Psychosocial Wellbeing of Vulnerable Populations at Risk in Kakuma Refugee Camp" sought to investigate the psychosocial wellbeing of vulnerable populations at risk in Kakuma refugee camp, Turkana County, Kenya. It revealed that the refugee experience involves exposure to numerous traumatic incidents in their country of origin, as well as daily stressors post-settlement in camps due to natural disasters, wars, and persecution based on factors like race, religion, political beliefs, and social identity. These individuals cannot rely on their home country for protection.

While previous research has extensively covered deaths, illnesses, and physical traumas resulting from wars and disasters, there is a dearth of longitudinal studies examining how psychosocial factors impact refugees' mental health and the effectiveness of problem-specific interventions in addressing mental health challenges. Despite existing psychiatric treatment approaches, the prevalence of mental illnesses among refugees continues to rise.

The study concludes that addressing the psychosocial wellbeing of refugees in Kakuma refugee camp requires targeted interventions specifically designed to tackle mental health issues¹. This emphasizes the need for a nuanced approach to mental health concerns within this population.

Refugee youth mental wellbeing through the lens of Resilience Action Inernational

Resilience Action International, established in 2010 by refugee youths in Kakuma Refugee Camp, started as a self-help group teaching English and has evolved into a national NGO. The organization now provides vocational skills, livelihood training, and reproductive health education to both local and refugee youths in Kakuma and displaced youth in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

With over a decade of experience connecting skilled youths to employment and self-employment opportunities, 60% of our scholars benefit from these arrangements. The rest pursue higher studies, migrate, or explore other interests.

In alumni follow-ups to assess program impact, it was discovered that some faced challenges maintaining jobs due to stress and anxiety. Concerns included fear of job loss in potential pandemics like COVID-19 and a lack of skills to adapt to workplace digitalization. Some admitted struggling with anxiety and a fear of social interactions.

The use of alcohol and drugs is a notable challenge for refugee youths mental health. Movement restrictions by the Kenyan government, coupled with difficulties obtaining movement passes, have led youths to seek alternative ways to spend money in a confined environment. Substances have become a coping mechanism, providing enjoyment and unhealthy management of depression for those confined to one place for an indefinite period.

Ongoing conflicts in Central Africa and the Horn of Africa have resulted in an influx of refugees to Kakuma, with 78 percent being women and girls and 22 percent men and boys. Despite escaping political, civil, and religious turmoil, women and girls face significant disadvantages due to cultural norms and gendered roles. They experience harassment, abuse, and gross violations of their human rights, leading to compromised mental wellbeing.

Intimate partner violence emerged as a significant factor affecting the mental health of youths during the exercise. Young women and girls residing in the camp face a heightened vulnerability to domestic violence and sexual abuse perpetrated by close relatives and spouses. Unfortunately, there is a prevalent trend of underreporting such cases to authorities.

stop to GBV gender based violence
RAI representatives at #16daysofActivism SheLeads campaign in Kajiado 2023. Stop gender based violence

Similarly, young men who have endured violence and abuse during their upbringing shared their experiences, discussing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the challenges of coping with societal expectations that stigmatize openness about such issues as 'impossible' and 'unmanly.' The culture of underreporting and maintaining silence surrounding domestic violence and sexual abuse ultimately contributes to a decline in mental health and an increased risk of mental disorders, especially among children born into these circumstances.

Moreover, PTSD stemming from the experiences of war and persecution survivors constitutes a significant factor contributing to mental disorders among youths. Within the refugee population seeking shelter in Kakuma, women and children constitute 78% of immigrants, with many men being compelled to join militant groups or succumbing to conflict-related fatalities.

Some women recounted witnessing horrific crimes or enduring assaults as they fought for safety. Young male survivors reflected on enduring atrocities during war and the struggle for freedom as captives of war. The weight of these traumatic memories continues to haunt many youths well into adulthood and most probably into their senior years if intervention is not sought.

Unresolved trauma among refugee youths has resulted in a reluctance to engage in economic activities or pursue education. Additionally, these youths encounter heightened difficulties in coping with daily stressors, frequently turning to risky behaviours and drug and alcohol use as coping mechanisms. This has led to addiction, a rise in instances of violence, unsafe sexual practices, unwanted pregnancies, increased rates of unemployment, and involvement in criminal activities.

Psychological Interventions for Refugee Youth's MentalWellness

Refugee Day, Resilience Action International
Youths Celebrating Refugee day at RAI Center in Kakuma 2, Kakuma refugee Camp, 2023

It is regrettable that mental health remains underexplored and understudied in refugee camps across Africa, particularly in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. Nonetheless, refugee-led organizations, such as RAI, persist in allocating resources to address mental health and employment for youths in the camps, aiming for comprehensive individual development.

There is a pressing need to enhance mental health through the holistic development of refugee youths to ensure sustained growth beyond the period of humanitarian assistance withdrawal. The mental well-being of individuals significantly influences their ability to manage work-related pressures, interact with colleagues of the opposite sex, and maintain healthy self-esteem. A healthy mind is crucial for productivity, and a lack thereof may lead to unemployment and difficulties in job retention.

Programs and projects should consider incorporating psychosocial well-being services, such as counseling and wellness exercises, into their design frameworks. This approach ensures participants become aware of mental health and the importance of caring for their psychological well-being.

Additionally, institutions operating in Kakuma refugee camp should integrate mental health discussions into their awareness and dialogue campaigns, challenging the taboo status of mental illness in traditional households. Encouraging open conversations will promote the acceptance of mental health as an integral aspect of youth well-being.

Furthermore, charitable organizations, trusts, and foundations should allocate more funds and resources to refugee mental health. Historically, a significant proportion of funding has been directed toward emergency response, leaving sectors like sexual and reproductive health education and mental health & psychosocial support (MHPSS) underfunded.

Long-term change is unattainable without working toward sustainable solutions to support refugee youths beyond humanitarian aid. Mental well-being plays a pivotal role in sustainable development and ensuring financial independence, self-development, and community building by youths living in refugee camps across Kenya. Indeed, the psychosocial aspect of development serves as one of the many foundations for economic and societal prosperity in refugee communities.


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