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September was Suicide Prevention Month, which saw organisations and individuals all over the world work together to raise awareness and share resources for suicide prevention. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds, it’s an issue that affects all ages, genders, and nationalities. Whilst important work is being done to prevent suicide, at the end of this year’s suicide prevention month there’s still one demographic that goes largely under the radar when it comes to receiving help, asylum seekers.
Just two years ago, the Guardian revealed that there were at least two suicide attempts every day at immigration detention centres in the UK, a fact that shocked many. But despite this revelation little has been done to address this issue, which remains prominent.
The government has recently promised to decrease the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK, a promise that reflects a return to the Hostile Environment Policy that has seen the government attempt to deport victims of torture. But whilst making this commitment to an increasing number of deportations, they have failed to address the effect they have on the mental health of many asylum seekers.
Speaking to Detained Voices, one asylum seeker has revealed the heart-breaking details about how immigration detention centres affect people, he said: “We went through so much to get here, it was torture and punishment. The whole way traffickers treated us like slaves. And here, when people have tried to commit suicide, all they do is take them to the hospital and then deport them anyway. A friend self-harmed very badly, and they just put him on a flight straight back to France. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. It’s like we are in Bashar Al Assad’s Prison here.”
In addition to personal accounts, there has recently been further evidence to suggest that suicide remains a significant issue in these detention centres. A report titled “Detained and Dehumanised, the Impact of Immigration Detention” was released by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in July and provides striking evidence to suggest that being kept in detention centres directly correlates to increased rates of suicide and self-harm. The report details the accounts of many interviewees who had experienced immigration detention. They claimed that suicide attempts were common, with many of the interviewees either witnessing attempts or making them themselves. One of the interviewees referenced in the report said: “I wanted to kill myself: I wrote in a suicide letter ‘The system killed me, the Home Office killed me’.”
And it’s not just happening within detention centres in May, a Syrian asylum seeker housed in a hotel in Glasgow was found dead in his room. His cause of death has not yet been revealed, but friends said he had previously had suicidal thoughts and feared being deported back to Syria.
So, what is the solution to this, and how can we prevent suicide and mental health issues among asylum seekers? The first step to do this is to properly investigate the extent of the issue. Despite a freedom of information request finding that 159 asylum seekers in detention attempted to commit suicide in just a two-month period in 2018, the government still does not routinely publish statistics on suicide or self-harm in detention centres. The same also goes for asylum seekers not being detained, we may hear about individual cases, but the national statistics are unknown. Only with an understanding of the full scope of the issue, we can begin to form successful methods of prevention.
A report investigating possible suicide prevention methods for refugees globally was released in 2019 and made suggestions for some of how we could do this. The report highlighted that refugee populations face additional challenges when it comes to suicide prevention. These challenges include a lack of social support, high levels of emotional distress, a lack of formal health, education and social service systems, discrimination, and marginalisation as well as language and cultural barriers.
In its research, the report identified only one suicide prevention programme as showing promising results of strong outcomes when it comes to refugee populations. This programme was the Contact and Safety Planning (CASP) intervention. The CASP intervention combines education, practical advice, and long-term, follow-up contact regularly. The Safety planning side of the programme involves generating a document with the individual at risk that aims to support and guide them when experiencing thoughts of suicide.
This method of prevention was tested at a refugee camp and compared to another refugee camp that didn’t get the intervention. Overall study results indicated statistically significantly lower rates of suicide attempts and deaths in the intervention camp.
Identifying and following individuals at risk of suicide and trying to connect them to care is a critical strategy in the prevention of suicide, the local partners that currently provide excellent suicide prevention programmes across the UK could be utilised to tackle the issue of suicide amongst asylum seekers. However, it’s important to note that personal accounts strongly suggest that treatment within immigration detention centres and the fear of deportation has a direct effect on the number of suicide attempts. Until the government addresses these key issues, poor mental health and high numbers of suicide attempts will continue.
Reanna Smith is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation that provides legal advice and assistance for those claiming asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK.