Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Young Refugees Talk about Well-Being: A Qualitative Analysis of Refugee Youth Mental Health from Three States

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Young Refugees Talk about Well-Being: A Qualitative Analysis of Refugee Youth Mental Health from Three States

Article excerpt


   The only fact of our immediate experience is what has been called
   'the specious' present, a sort of saddle-back of time with a certain
   length of its own, on which we sit perched, and from which we look
   in two directions into time. (William James, 1892)

   Within given limits, 'now' is always transcended. (Agnes Heller,

As James suggested at a psychological level and Heller at an historical level, it can be difficult to neatly separate past, present and future. Although we cannot avoid such separations, we also know at a deeper level that the past inextricably reaches into our present and future. By definition, refugees hold with them a past involving persecution or fear of persecution. Yet refugees also embody hope for a brighter future. Refugees perhaps more than any other group confront the challenges of the present and future in the context of a tumultuous past. For young people from a refugee background, the desire for better futures is more poignant as they seek to establish secure futures not only in a new social, cultural and geographical space but also in a new adult space as well.

Refugees arriving in Australia face not only the stresses of migration related to sudden changes in language and culture, but they must also contend with a past that is often filled with extremely traumatic experiences. It is not surprising then, that the health literature concerning refugees tends to focus on the stress of adapting to new environments as well as the additional stress of dealing with past events. Yet in the West, mental health status is often understood in terms of acculturation stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. Whilst both of these areas are clearly extremely important, they can focus attention on refugees in a manner which limits our understanding of them as whole people with lives that stretch beyond the label of refugee. Our gaze can be restricted to transitions in lives rather than whole lives, to victims rather than survivors, to illness rather than health. Moreover, biomedical dominance tends to direct our attention toward the clinical level of treatment rather than a broader population health perspective.

Langer (1990:69) has commented that to understand the experience of refugees we must have a 'clear sense of refugee trauma as having its origins in the intersection of history, social structure and biography--an intersection that does not cease when refugees leave their homeland.' When we talk of 'refugee youth' we are creating a construct, which at times can mask the diverse ways in which a young person from a refugee background experiences the world. A young refugee might experience the world primarily as a young black person, or a young woman--issues of gender, race, discrimination, inequality, poverty could provide some of the primary prisms through which the world is experienced. Trauma emerges as the past mixes with both the painful experiences of the present and anxieties about the future. The outbreak of war again in the country of origin will often trigger experiences that link to the past--a complex nexus of individual emotion and broader social and political forces.

Wyn and White (1997:25) reminds us that the experience of young people is best understood as a 'relational concept', one that enables us to 'take into account the diverse ways in which young people are constructed through social institutions, and the ways in which they negotiate their transitions'. It is essential then, that we do not make assumptions about who refugees are and what problems they face. The only way we can achieve this is by listening to refugees themselves, and attempt to understand their issues within their frame of reference. This paper presents the voices of young people who have recently settled in Australia as refugees. We argue that rather than being fearful of the subjectivities of refugees and the scientific 'bias' this may bring we need to engage directly in the experiential world (2). …

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