Mental health and undocumented migrants: addressing challenges, fostering resilience

For undocumented people or for people with insecure residence status, precarious living and working situations, limited economic opportunities, exclusion from key services and the constant threat of being uprooted through deportation all contribute to chronic stress, uncertainty, and inequality, which erode their mental health and wellbeing.

  • Poverty is an important driver of stress, with evidence that the chronic stress of struggling with material disadvantage is made worse by doing so in an unequal society.
  • Being undocumented or having a residence permit tied to one’s spouse or employer can heighten the risk of coercion and abuse – and diminish the probability of seeking help or justice for fear that doing so could mean loss of work, loss of status and deportation.
  • Migration procedures themselves can be traumatic, requiring people to recount distressing past experiences in the context of asylum applications, regularisation procedures on medical or humanitarian grounds, procedures for victims of trafficking or crime and related appeals procedures.
  • Studies indicate that immigration detention has a severe negative impact on mental health, resulting in a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress compared to the rest of the population, and an average of very high levels of depression in four of every five people in detention.

Meaningfully addressing mental health among undocumented people and people with insecure status requires recognizing and addressing the dimensions of mental distress that are a symptom of deprivation and social injustice.  It is also critical to promote positive mental health as essential to resilience. Although they are frequently portrayed as “vulnerable”, undocumented people in fact often demonstrate great strength in the face of adversity. Relationships and community are vital to achieving this but must be accompanied by systemic reforms that address barriers to mental health care and other services, as well as policies across sectors that drive criminalisation and exclusion based on administrative status.

Find out more information and recommendations in our briefing Insecure Residence Status, Mental Health and Resilience.

For more information on the mental health of undocumented children, see our report Navigating Irregularity.


Cover image: Eyeforebony – Unsplash

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