The impact of immigration detention on mental health: a systematic review [2018]

The number of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced people worldwide has increased dramatically over the past 5 years. Many countries are continuing to resort to detaining asylum seekers and other migrants, despite concerns that this may be harmful. In light of the considerable body of recent research, this review aims to update and expand on a 2009 systematic review on the mental health consequences of detention on adult, adolescent and child immigration detainees, which found (on the basis on 9 studies) that there was consistent evidence that immigration detention had adverse effects on mental health.

Three databases were searched using key terms relating to immigration detention and mental health. Electronic searches were supplemented by reference screening. Studies were included if they were quantitative, included individuals detained for immigration purposes, reported on mental health problems and were published in peer-reviewed journals. Two reviewers independently screened papers for eligibility, and a further two reviewers completed quality appraisals for included studies.

Twenty- six studies (21 of which were not included in the 2009 review) reporting on a total of 2099 participants were included in the review. Overall, these studies indicated that adults, adolescents and children experienced high levels of mental health problems. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were most commonly reported both during and following detention. Higher symptom scores were found in detained compared to non-detained refugees. In addition (and more clearly than was evident in 2009), detention duration was positively associated with severity of mental symptoms. Greater trauma exposure prior to detention was also associated with symptom severity.

The literature base reviewed in this paper consistently demonstrated severe mental health consequences amongst detainees across a wide range of settings and jurisdictions. There is a pressing need for the proper consideration of mental health and consequent risk of detention-related harm in decisions surrounding detention as well as for improved care for individuals within detention facilities. Recommendations based on these findings are presented, including increased focus on the identification of vulnerability and on minimising the duration of detention.

M. von Werthern, K. Robjant, Z. Chui, R. Schon, L. Ottisova, C. Mason and C. Katona
BMC Psychiatry, 2018 18:382