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Mental health tips for people fleeing conflict

Many people who had to flee their homes have experienced and witnessed terrible things. These experiences are very traumatic and will emotionally affect everyone. Arriving in a new country can be confusing and challenging and it takes time for people to find their way. 

It is important to look after your mental health and wellbeing. Please remember, the NHS is here for those who need more help.

How can I support my mental health?

  • Feeling upset is a normal reaction to these events

Distress can affect people in different ways; people can initially feel shocked, numb, or confused, but also afraid and jumpy. There can also be physical effects of feeling upset that can include headaches, and aches and pains. Vivid thoughts and images about what happened may pop into our mind and nightmares can be common. You might find it difficult to relax or to be able to sleep. You may also feel sadness about the losses you experienced. These responses are natural. They are the result of our minds trying to work out and process what has happened

  • Looking after your wellbeing 

Although the conflict you fled might be ongoing, remember that you are now safe in the UK.  Recovering and regaining your physical and mental strength is important for your future and will also help those close to you and your community

  • Be kind to yourself and others

You are going through a difficult part in your life journey. Try to find kind ways to look after yourself and make yourself comfortable

  • Connect with your values 

It can be helpful to reconnect with personal values and what is important to you

  • Managing anxiety

Fear and anxiety are inevitable responses to the current situation. When feeling anxious, you might find it helpful to focus your attention on the here and now by using your five senses to notice things that you can hear, see, smell, touch and taste

Some tips you may find helpful

  • Talking to others can help
  • Light exercise and movement
  • Try to give yourself breaks from listening to, reading or watching the news
  • If you feel angry or frustrated about what is happening, you might want to find ways to document it by writing, or making voice/video records
  • It is normal to worry during times of risk and uncertainty but worrying can sometimes become repetitive or circular and affect our mood. Similarly, you may find yourself dwelling on what has happened. Try and find ways to engage in activities that can occupy your mind and allow you to have a bit of a break from your worries
  • People sometimes feel guilt and shame in difficult situations.  If you have these feelings try to be compassionate to yourself and remind yourself that you did not choose to be in this situation
  • Ask yourself what you can do right now, no matter how small it is, that can improve life for you or people close to you. This could be things that have helped you through difficult times in the past

How can I support my child?  

  • There is no one way of feeling. Some children may experience difficulties sleeping, thoughts and memories of what has happened, irritability or feeling low. Their difficulties may not always be visible to others. Acknowledge and be understanding of your child’s feelings
  • Where possible, try to help them do the things they used to enjoy back home
  • Keep to a routine if you can. Even the most basic routines, such as a familiar breakfast or bedtime routine, could give your child a feeling of safety and security
  • Grief has lots of stages and children will have a combination of many different feelings. It will take time to accept what has happened. Seek support for their grief and your own
  • Your child may be clingy and ask for and need lots more reassurance. Be patient with your child and if their behaviour has changed, understand that this is a normal reaction to what they have been through. Help your child maintain their links with family members and friends around them
  • Your child will probably ask you a lot of questions about what is going to happen. They might ask you repeatedly for reassurance which may be hard for you to offer. Try and be honest but remind your child that they are safe now
  • Support your child’s integration into the local community, through attendance at a local school/college or through engaging in community activities – this can support a sense of belonging

Tips for children and young people 

  • Talk to someone you trust about your feelings or experiences, what is going on in your head and how your body feels
  • Ask an adult to support you so you can do the things you used to love at home, whether that’s swimming or playing football or listening to music.
  • If you have a faith or religious belief, use this to help you find comfort
  • Limit the time you spend on your phone and on social media as it can make you feel more anxious. Avoid constantly checking the news
  • There are some things you can do when you feel very worried and low:
    • Breathing exercises: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds and repeat. This might help you feel calmer
    • Listen to your favourite songs, read a book or watch a film to try and distract yourself from your thoughts
    • Create a self-soothe box. You could include something to smell, something to touch, something to look at and maybe even something to taste. Include photos or special things that remind you of nice memories.
  • Try going for a walk or playing a sport you enjoy
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Think about who you would feel most comfortable talking to – it may be a family member or a friend, a teacher, a doctor or someone from a support group who has experienced something similar

Getting support in the UK 

The easiest way to access the NHS is to register with a GP (family doctor) surgery. Everyone has a right to register with a GP and you do not need proof of address, immigration status, ID or an NHS number (you may be asked to provide ID but it is not a requirement). A GP can offer medical advice, and prescribe medicines, and can refer you or a family member to other specialist services if needed.

You can also attend the Accident and Emergency Department (A&E) if you have immediate concerns about risk and safety that cannot wait.

There are also 24/7 urgent mental health helplines available across the country for anyone who needs support. You can call for yourself, or a loved one: nhs.uk/urgentmentalhealth

The following resources might also be helpful:

  • Information on how to access NHS Mental Health services
  • Better Health Every Mind Matters campaign provides helpful tips for yourself and children. There are designated pages to help parents and carers spot the signs that children may be struggling with their mental health and also provides advice that can help maintain good mental wellbeing
  • YoungMinds Parents Helpline is available for parents, guardians and carers and you can call them on 0808 802 5544; 9.30am to 4pm on weekdays.
  • Samaritans are an organisation you can ring, on 116 123, for free, at any time of the day or night. You can also email them.
  • Doing What Matters in Times of Stress (who.int)– A free stress management guide for coping with adversity. The guide aims to equip people with practical skills to help cope with stress. It has been translated into 19 languages
Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan

Professor Prathiba Chitsabesan is the Associate National Clinical Director for Children and Young People’s Mental Health for NHS England.

Prathiba is a Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry working in a large mental health and community trust (Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust). Lead consultant since 2005, she became Clinical Director in 2015 and continues to work clinically within a community child and adolescent mental health service in South Manchester. She graduated from Medicine (University of Manchester) before completing her MD, inspiring her interest in the needs of children and young people in contact with the criminal justice system.

Over the last 12 years she has published in journals and books and contributed to national reports and guidance for the Youth Justice Board and Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

She has contributed to the development of the Comprehensive Health Assessment Tool across the youth justice secure estate for the Department of Health and NHS England and continues to be research active as an Honorary Research Fellow and Lecturer for the Offender Health Research Network (University of Manchester).

As a clinical advisor (Greater Manchester and East Cheshire Strategic Clinical Networks), she has also promoted the development of regional clinical guidance across Greater Manchester.

Dr Idit Albert is a Clinical Advisor, and a Clinical Lead for psychological programmes for COVID19 response for health and care staff with NHSE&I. She is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and PTSD Lead at South London and Maudsley with extensive experience of working with refugees. Dr Albert developed and led psychology outreach support services in response to international and London terror incidents and psychological support programme for UK medics working in the Ebola treatment centres in Sierra Leone. She worked as a consultant on international projects for survivors of human trafficking and military veterans. Dr Albert is also an Academic Director in Clinical Psychology at King’s College London.