Mad and Saintly: Mental Health and Destitution

I have volunteered in a Night Shelter for destitute asylum seekers and refugees for five years now. Asylum seekers and refugees often come from countries and situations where their experiences include intense violence, torture, dispossession and, at the least, extremes of fear, where they are escaping from levels of intimidation and lack of personal freedom which are cause enough for their flight.


A, a man from Zimbabwe in his thirties, arrived at the shelter, recommended by the help desk. He was withdrawn, kept himself to himself, avoided conversation and was clearly disturbed and anxious showing all the signs of a severe mental health condition. Over the coming year he returned irregularly to the shelter and often carried the signs of living rough. Other men at the shelter who were sharing the room with him found it increasingly hard to have him there. His hygiene was so profoundly compromised by his state of anxiety and depression that he smelled increasingly strongly. At first he was asked to keep his shoes and socks outside the door but eventually in order to maintain a sense of calm at the shelter he was asked not to come.


Those who have been subject to or witnessed extremes of violence will bring with them often debilitating mental health conditions. Once destitute, often they can not cope with the demands of etiquette that are implicit in taking assistance from either friends or volunteers. These people, who are in a sense the most vulnerable, become those most difficult to help. They are those most damaged by a system that gives a legality to total destitution. Voluntary organisations can not usually cope with mental health problems and are obliged to try and refer such cases to other bodies. Destitution leaves vulnerable people completely isolated. Voluntary groups and peers/friends alike are often unable to cope well with mental health issues and thus the only recourse of the destitute can be removed.


B, a man from Iran, is destitute. He has left Iran because he had the sense to escape before he was tortured and abused. He isn’t a heroic figure who resisted to the point of carrying the scars or his family asking for the death certificate. He ran away, quite justifiably, in great fear from a political/religious situation where he was obliged to lie constantly about himself in order to survive.


Those who are not scarred by their experiences to the point of having severe mental health problems face another set of issues. Their destitution, lasting years perhaps, insists that they remain ‘good’, cheerful, willing to engage with the voluntary groups who offer help, able to manage the human relations that allow them to profit from offers of assistance from their peers, visits to solicitors, regular signings at the Border Agency, occasional detention. And always these people are required to show good will, good nature, not to be aggressive, not to show passion. Such a need to be constantly on best behaviour when such an approach has no legal benefit to the destitute individual, can lead to a sense of confusion, of lack of self which can result in the onset of mental health problems.


C walks around the city always with a dark cloud over him. Working out our own mental health issues is hard enough but when you might have to mix understanding how to regulate your moods with just surviving is unbelievably hard. D is always ready to help, to assist, he is a good man ready to offer his time to others. His situation requires that he remains sane, doesn’t lose his temper, stays stable when he is alone and frightened in a foreign country that forces him to be destitute.


The destitution of asylum seekers and refugees turns some, the most vulnerable, into suffering figures unable to manage their situation. Another element, in order to maintain their sanity, are trapped in a cycle of being gooder than good, when of course, they are asylum seekers and refugees, not saints. Being a refugee or asylum seeker does not make you good, it makes you vulnerable and arises from vulnerability. Destitution alienates further those in most need and puts impossible demands on those more able to cope.



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