The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on many people’s mental health, especially among vulnerable groups like refugees. In Kenya’s urban refugee camps, aid agencies are trying to help people cope with anxiety and depression.
In one of Nairobi’s suburbs, a group of refugee women go through the day’s training activity on how to detect and handle mental health-related issues. The training is to deal with the extra load of mental health issues brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Refugees already burdened by the trauma of fleeing their home countries must also face the pandemic’s impact on their income and way of life.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees spokesperson, Eujin Byun, says the agency has had its hands full dealing with this challenge.
“We noticed that the counselling per month has significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic so that we added more resources to account for those kinds of challenges, so that we bring more therapists, more counsellors so that they can have, in the case that they do the home visits and then the phone counselling so that refugees can feel they have access to the mental health service and they can fight with the mental health issue,” said Byun.
Psychologist Albert Chumo, who works with refugee women and children, says the pandemic has not only re-opened old trauma cases but also manifested new mental health concerns.
“Some of them have families, they have children, they are withdrawing from family members, at times some of them would even say like there is no point of living, so they are hopeless,” he said.
Sixty-year-old Esperanza Mukawachina is a Rwandese refugee who’s lived in Kenya for the last 20 years. She operates a clothing shop on behalf of close to 40 other refugee women who have felt both the economic and mental ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She says the last 16 months have been the toughest of her twenty years of refugee life in Kenya due to the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
“Because of too much stress, and anxiety, you could get an illness you weren’t expecting, I developed high blood pressure, because of worrying too much,” she said.
Women like Esperanza are being helped to navigate the mental health pitfalls by aid agencies like Refushe Kenya. Demand for the agency’s help has been especially high in urban centres.
Mildred Kemunto, a programs officer with Refushe says the agency has had to re-tailor its program due to the pandemic.
“We are doing it on WhatsApp, where one who has a smartphone can access it through the sessions, where we always have one session every month for each member of the groups, where we do the phone sessions, that’s stress management on different issues that affect our women,” she said.
The UNHCR says this approach is working well in the refugee camps in northern Kenya where counselling services are also offered virtually for those refugees in need.