Research shows humanitarian crises have a significant effect on the mental health of those affected. The conflict in Ukraine has brought the wellbeing and mental health of asylum seekers and refugees into renewed focus in the UK.  

Recent figures from the United Nations indicate that, as of 28 June 2022, 6.2 million people are displaced within Ukraine, and 5.5 million are refugees in Europe. 

This Insight highlights the impact that fleeing war can have on mental health and outlines guidance for national governments by international bodies. It also looks at how the UK Government is supporting refugees and asylum seekers from Ukraine.  

What do we know about the mental health of refugees and asylum seekers?

Evidence shows refugees are often deeply traumatised and may have significant mental health needs. A survey by the Refugee Council in England found that 61% of asylum seekers experience serious mental illness and they are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the UK population.  

The Mental Health Foundation also says asylum seekers and refugees are more likely to suffer from depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders, linked to pre-migration experiences and post-migration conditions.   

Asylum seekers and refugees have often experienced war, violence and trauma in their home country, and may be anxious and worried about the immigration system on arrival in a new country. Research has shown refugees are concerned about work, housing and family reunion (PDF) when they are displaced. The difficulties faced by refugees when they arrive in a new country can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions.  

The Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that refugees and asylum seekers are less likely to receive mental health support than the general population. The mental health charity MIND has found there are significant challenges for refugees and asylum seekers to access mental health care and support (PDF). 

What guidance is provided to national governments from international organisations?

The World Health Organization has recognised the significant mental health impact of displacement on refugees and published guidance on migrant mental health for national governments (PDF) in 2018. The UNHCR has also published guidance on mental health, advising governments to ensure “activities are integrated into wider systems (such as general health services, education or social services) or embedded in community support mechanisms.” It also recommends initial rapid assessments for health and protection should include mental health and psychosocial support.  

More recently, the UNHCR has drawn attention to the need for states to offer humanitarian assistance to civilians from Ukraine.  Alongside providing refuge, this means ensuring refugees are supported, treated with dignity and respect, and not subject to further human rights abuses. The Office of the UNHCR also published a regional support plan to promote timely and life-saving humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing Ukraine. 

Support for the mental health needs of refugees from Ukraine in the UK

The mental health needs of refugees from Ukraine were debated in the House of Lords in April 2022. Baroness Helic, who 30 years ago fled from conflict in former Yugoslavia to resettle in the UK, said there is a need for psychological support for refugees in the UK:   

A refugee is not only in need of physical safety. Many will be traumatised and vulnerable. We need to ensure that psychosocial support is available, both during the first six months and beyond, as refugees establish new lives here in the United Kingdom. I know from my own experience how difficult it is.  

The Home Affairs Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into the Government’s policy on refugees from Ukraine. Witnesses gave evidence on the healthcare needs of refugees from Ukraine on their arrival to the UK, in addition to their need for housing, benefits and specialist support.   

More widely, the Women and Equalities Select Committee has been looking at asylum seekers and equality issues. The Committee heard directly from witnesses who had left their home countries in extremely difficult and traumatic circumstances. Witnesses spoke about the asylum process and the toll it takes on the mental health and welfare of asylum seekers. 

How is the UK Government responding to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine?

The Government published details of its humanitarian response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s pledged £220 million of humanitarian assistance and said its priority for UK funding is to support the most vulnerable.  

Visa support has been offered through the Homes for Ukraine and the Ukraine Family schemes. Since the conflict began in February 2022, over 160,000 Ukrainian citizens have applied to seek refuge in the UK through the Government’s Ukraine sponsorship scheme. At the time of writing, 82,000 have arrived in the UK. 

In April, however, the Commons International Development Committee Chair, Sarah Champion MP, criticised the UK’s humanitarian aid as “too slow.” To 26 May, £85 million in aid has been disbursed.  

Further information about the measures taken by the Government is on the UK Stands with Ukraine website 

Further reading

About the author: Judy Laing is a parliamentary academic fellow in the Social Policy Section of the House of Commons Library. 

Photo: Ukraine refugees by  Halfpoint.  Adobe Stock #id=492604019.