A mental health crisis is growing in the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of Somalis have been trapped for decades. A fatal mix of pent-up despair, anxiety, and fear, combined with new uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, is pushing many refugees to take extreme measures.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) runs a mental health clinic as part of its 100-bed hospital in Dagahaley camp, one of three camps that make up the Dadaab refugee complex. The clinic provides medical treatment for patients with various mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, personality and anxiety disorders.
MSF is witnessing a dramatic deterioration in the mental health of camp residents. “COVID-19 has ended what little chance refugees had of escaping their degrading lives in the camps, compounding the mental distress for many who had nothing left but hope to cling to,” says MSF project coordinator for Dadaab, Jeroen Matthys. “We are seeing a groundswell of desperation in the camp.”
In Dagahaley, the number of attempted suicides is rising, and psychosocial consultations have jumped by more than 50 percent from last year (over the same time period through September): from 505 to 766. In the last two months, five people have reportedly attempted suicide in the camp, two with fatal results.
Many refugees in Dadaab were already frustrated with the lack of progress in finding durable solutions. Now they are facing the COVID-19 pandemic. The meager humanitarian assistance they depend on has been further reduced amid donor concerns of widening funding gaps. The World Food Programme has cut food rations by 40 percent, and many other agencies have drastically reduced their presence, severely disrupting access to basic services.
These cuts in food rations, along with a lack of gainful employment and an ever-present uncertainty about the future, have created a new mental health crisis.
In August, Haret Abdirahman’s 24-year-old son committed suicide in Dagahaley camp, after what he says was a life with no future prospects. “Despite finishing his high school education, he kept talking about how life was difficult for him in the camp without a job. He would often say that he wished he could take his own life, but I never thought he would actually do it.”