Hesperian Health Guides

Mental Health

Causes of mental health problems

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A woman must be able to cope with sudden and forced change in order to help her family survive.

Refugee and displaced women face many of the difficulties listed below, which can cause mental health problems or make them worse. Mental health problems include feeling extreme sadness or not feeling anything at all (depression), feeling nervous or worried (anxiety), or feeling unable to get over horrible things that happened in the past (severe reactions to trauma).

  • Loss of home. Because home is the one place where a woman often has some authority, losing her home may be especially painful.
  • Loss of support from family and community. As her family’s caregiver, a woman must provide security for her children, and support her partner and parents. If her husband and older sons have died in fighting or joined military forces, she must also become head of the family. All these responsibilities can make her feel afraid and alone. This can happen even when other adults in the family are with her, because often they cannot support her as they did before.
  • Witnessing or being a victim of violence.
  • Loss of independence and useful work. Although a woman still has the important job of caring for her family, in other ways her life may be more limited now. For example, before leaving her home, a woman might have been responsible for growing crops, weaving, sewing, and baking bread. If she can no longer do these things, she may feel useless and sad.
  • Crowded living. Without space, it is much harder for a woman to cope with the extra demands of caring for her family.
  • Difficulty mourning or grieving. Refugee and displaced women may have lost family members before reaching their new home, but have been unable to carry out traditional burial or mourning ceremonies. Once in a place of refuge, it may still be impossible to bury or mourn in traditional ways. In many places, women are responsible for carrying out these ceremonies, which are important in order to grieve and accept the death of a loved one.

Signs of mental health problems

For information about the signs of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and severe reactions to trauma, see the chapter on “Mental Health.”

Working for better mental health

More Information
helping relationships

The best way to help overcome mental health problems and to prevent them from becoming worse is to talk with other women about feelings, worries, and concerns. Here are some suggestions for encouraging the women you know to listen to and support each other:

  • Organize activities that let women spend time together, such as nutrition or literacy classes, or child care and religious activities. Make extra efforts to include women who seem afraid or uninterested in getting involved. Often these women are the ones who most need to participate and talk with others.
three women tending a garden near a house

A group of Guatemalan refugee women who felt a deep loss when they left their land worked together to plant vegetables and flowers. This helped them feel close to the earth, to begin to feel like a community again, and to provide some food for their families.
  • Organize a support group.
  • Work with other women to find ways to grieve and mourn. You may be able to adapt some of your traditional rituals to your new situation. If you cannot, at least plan some time to grieve as a group.
  • Become a mental health worker. You can organize a group of friends to talk with women who may not ask for help but who are suffering from mental health problems. Find out if your community has trained mental health workers or religious workers trained in counseling who can also help.

This page was updated:01 Feb 2021