The mental health of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

A few minutes with Annicka Lang, psychologist and head of treatment at the private healthcare company Humana and also doctoral student at LiU. You are travelling around the country giving talks about the mental health of children who arrive alone seeking asylum. How did this come about?
Photo: Håkan FlankFoto: Håkan Flank“I was working in childcare for over 20 years and then I studied psychology at LiU. Many years ago when I was working in secure institutions I noticed that young people of non-Swedish origin were over-represented. I thought it was amazing how no one there was working with war trauma and migration issues. These things weren't even discussed. But I had become interested. So now, as a doctoral student, I am delving deeper into issues related to crisis and trauma in children and young people placed in institutions and what the best treatment for them would be. Many of the children who arrive alone have been through very difficult experiences. Their basic trust in other people is damaged.”

Who comes to your talks?
“School staff, social services, residential staff, treatment assistants - you know, everyone who comes into contact with the young people who arrive alone.”

In what concrete ways can you help staff in their professional work with young people?
“I have many consultations, for example with ‘family homes’, or familjehem as we call them, and treatment staff. They ask questions like ‘He doesn’t trust me, what shall I do?’ ‘He has these terrible nightmares, what can I do?’ ‘He feels so far a way. I can‘t make contact.’ And then there are cultural clashes that can be difficult for the staff to deal with. Many of those who arrive alone often have a responsibility on them from back home - to try to get the rest of the family here or to help out with money back home. For them it is obvious. Yet here in Sweden they are seen as children who should be looked after until they are 18 years old. That creates a conflict both for the children - they feel so powerless and indebted - and for the staff. So I work with developing methodology and giving solid, practical tools to help the treatment staff work in the future. It ‘s very much about trying to build relationships, no matter how difficult that is when they no longer trust any adult.”

Difficult in what ways?
“Well some of the ones arriving alone are very angry, for example. They shout and fight or self-harm. The adult has to understand that these are symptoms of a stressful situation, that many of them have been through terrible experiences of violence, attacks and death. But this kind of behaviour in children can elicit strong feelings of anger in the staff who feel that they have done everything for the child and get nothing in return other than maybe more aggression. In these kinds of situations I can give the treatment staff and the teachers methods and help them deal with what his happening in a professional manner.

During 2015 over 1,500 children arrived alone to seek asylum in Sweden, an increase of over 60 per cent compared with the same period last year. What is it like for the ones who are granted asylum and stay in Sweden?
“There are no up-to-date figures, but old figures indicate that the ones who do gain a foothold in society here and find a life here do well. But the less opportunity they have to enter into society the worse the outcome.”