Portugal: going the extra mile, a focus on mental health
01 November 2011

Sr Maria José Rebelo provides psychosocial support and counselling to refugees at JRS Portugal (Don Doll SJ/JRS)
JRS has a lot of good experience on the ground and has conducted studies on the needs of migrants in vulnerable circumstances, collecting a lot of useful data. This will eventually enhance the capacity of JRS staff to speak on of the migrants and their mental health needs.

Brussels, 01 November 2011 – JRS Europe Media Assistant Cathal Foley speaks to mental health counsellor Sr Maria Jose Rebelo who explains the importance of addressing psychosocial needs of forced migrants.

Sr Maria José Rebelo has dedicated her life to the provision of mental healthcare support to refugees, one of their most important and, yet, overlooked needs.

While living in foreign countries such as Australia, Brazil, England and Spain, Sr Maria José Rebelo of the congregation of the Holy Spirit Missionaries came to realise and empathise with the emotional as well as physical plight of migrants and refugees.

After six and a half years in Australia where she completed her studies in clinical psychology, specialising in intercultural mental health, Sr Rebelo felt the pull of her native Portugal and returned to volunteer for JRS.

The pressing need for the provision of mental healthcare to refugees became apparent to JRS Portugal and in February 2007, they started their mental health programme.

What began as a part-time service a few days a week quickly evolved, and by July Sr Rebelo started providing psychological support full time. Today, the mental health department consists of two full-time workers, who last year provided psychotherapy and counselling to 108 forced migrants.

Most of those who receive support from the JRS mental health team are trying to cope with issues of guilt, sadness and grief regarding the loss of loved ones. In general, they only require a few sessions. However, approximately one third of Sr Rebelo's individuals require between 10 and to 20 sessions. A smaller number, with a predisposition to a mental health disorder, are referred to a psychiatrist or a general practitioner for longer-term treatments.

Challenges

In addition to the culture shock of being in a foreign country, the lack of regular immigration status can have a detrimental effect on the mental health of forced migrants.

"Very often, people are struggling with unemployment and other social problems, unable to meet their basic human needs, such as food and shelter. Their irregular status is very often a source of their anxiety", noted Sr Rebelo.

Crisis intervention is one of the main ways JRS Portugal helps forced migrants with psychological difficulties.

"People often feel a lot of guilt when they cannot send money home to their children or elderly parents. They suffer because they are unable to visit them due to their irregular status. So, there are a lot of feelings of mistrust and low self esteem. They stop believing in themselves", she continued.

Resource constraints

Sr Rebelo does not usually have any problems getting her clients to open up about their problems. She attributes this to the friendly and open atmosphere in JRS Portugal, and the proximity of each JRS department to the others.

"We work in the same vicinity as the other areas of support... if a person goes to the social support office and is in a very bad state emotionally, my colleague might call me to meet the person, which helps strengthen relationships. If the person also has a trusting relationship with one of my colleagues, they will find it easier to trust me… They trust us and feel cared for here", Sr Rebelo explained.

While the mental health department has made huge strides since 2007, a lack of space and financial support has inhibited its further expansion and kept the centre dependent on volunteers. JRS Portugal is currently seeking a volunteer psychiatrist, so that more than counselling support can be offered.

In spite of these limitations, Sr Rebelo continues to set ambitious goals for the department.

JRS has a lot of good experience on the ground and has conducted studies on the needs of migrants in vulnerable circumstances, collecting a lot of useful data. This will eventually enhance the capacity of JRS staff to speak on of the migrants and their mental health needs.

Cathal Foley, JRS Europe Media Assistant

For more information on mental health issues of migrants and refugees in Europe see:

http://jrseurope.org/publications/The%20Refuge%20October%202011.pdf


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