Inside lockdown: insights into the lives of young refugees during COVID-19 - Refugee Council
June 19, 2020

Inside lockdown: insights into the lives of young refugees during COVID-19

Sarah Temple-Smith is a children’s psychotherapist and manages Refugee Council’s My View project in London, a children’s therapy service offering individual and group support. Sarah shares some of her recent experiences with us.

For many of us, the COVID-19 crisis is the most unusual situation we have experienced, but at My View London we are adapting our service to provide the most appropriate support possible for our clients’ changing needs.  Our young clients are all here on their own, having experienced or witnessed violence and death, undergoing journeys sometimes of unspeakable horror.

With no family to turn to for help, it’s no wonder that the friendships they make with other young asylum seekers, who may be going through the same things, become for them, their most important support system.  Once we were, as a country, asked to stay home, many of them struggled to understand why they were being asked to isolate. I’ve been contacted by social workers, concerned about their young people responding to the new restrictions on their movement with uncharacteristic outburst of anger or bouts of tearfulness.

Sadly, we have also seen an increase in reports of self-harming, such as cutting or refusing to eat.

With even more referrals than usual, we are now offering regular remote drop-in sessions—one-off support for some, or a series of sessions for others—whatever we agree together would be the best fit for them. We were very quick off the mark to contact all our clients to let them know that we could continue supporting them either by phone or online, and sent out information sheets in most languages so that young people could get accurate and helpful information about how to stay safe.

We send regular texts reminding the young people that they can contact us if they need to and put in calls to clients, including past ones, to check how they are managing.  Most reported feeling bored, and some were becoming very low due to loneliness.

One of my clients, who had been engaging well with our in-person sessions, told me she was spending long hours lying on her bed and crying. She is the only tenant in her house now and shared that she was thinking constantly about her family and wondering if she was going to die alone. She had not been outside except to do her weekly shop because she thought it was forbidden and said she looked forward to our sessions as “you are the only person I speak to.”

I was able to send her information showing that a daily walk was not only allowed but encouraged both for her physical and emotional health. I also emailed her some resources, such as a list of ‘virtual’ tours of zoos, galleries and museums, or links to free live shows, as well as online activities such as photography projects or crafts.

This had a noticeable effect on her mood, and she told me she felt “… clearer after the sessions, I know what I could be expecting and I feel I am more positive about things…I feel happier because I now have someone to talk to, I feel supported and now I have something to look forward to do.”

"I feel I am more positive about things...I feel happier because I now have someone to talk to, I feel supported and now I have something to look forward to."

Anxiety about becoming sick on your own is something other clients have also expressed in our sessions, one sharing how frightened he was, being away from his family. In regular telephone calls I helped him work with his anxiety, with simple breathing and relaxation exercises, reminding him that as a teenager with no underlying health issues he is not in one of the most vulnerable groups.

He also appreciated being emailed the up-to-date COVID-19 information and in our last call, he shared that he is now having regular social distancing walks in the park with his friend, and feeling more relaxed. Another, who has been referred as an urgent case due to signs of depression and self-harm, took to the sessions well, learning the breathing and relaxation methods, and commenting “I am slowly, slowly feeling safer and safer.”

"I am slowly, slowly feeling safer and safer"

Perhaps the proof that this approach has been working is when after a series of extended sessions a client feels they are now ready to end. I recently finished working with a client after three months, who had been referred to us due to his traumatic experiences on his journey to the UK, including losing the family member who had brought him up.

We had been working well together when, half way through our work, we had gone into lockdown, and moved to online support. During this time he struggled with the restrictions on movement, which was bringing him into conflict with his accommodation providers, leading to his running away for a short time.

By providing him with unconditional support, and offering the practical information he needed we were able to get him to understand more about why he was being asked to stay in, and communicating this to his social worker. We learned some mindfulness techniques to ‘damp down’ his anxiety, and continued to explore and work through his feelings about his loss.

As a keen artist, I encouraged him to use this to help him process his memories, and he responded with enthusiasm, sending me a whole series of marvelous drawings, of which he was immensely proud.  As we ended our last session he thanked me for everything, adding “I’ve learned from you not to stress. And also you help me to become patient. I will never forget the advice you give me, never.”

"I've learned from you not to stress. And also you help me to become patient."

My View

My View is a support service for young people who have suffered traumatic experiences. Professionals from a range of therapeutic backgrounds offer tailored one-to-one support, as well as group sessions in which children can express themselves in a safe and supportive environment.

Read more about My View on our website.

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