May is Mental Health Month! Instead of sharing statistics and data about the importance of refugee mental health care, we’re going to show you how critical mental well-being is through the stories of 4 incredible and resilient people.

Now, close your eyes and picture your life as it is today. You probably have a home, friends, and a family. You might have a job you love or hobbies that keep you busy. When times are tough or bad things happen, you might turn to your church community to support you. Or you might have your own self-care practices, things as simple as taking a walk or a nice hot bath, to comfort yourself.

Now imagine it all taken away in an instant. War, economic downturn, famine, or religious persecution has come to your doorstep. You’re forced to leave everything you’ve ever known behind to survive.

If this were your reality, you’d probably experience the same thing that thousands of people do every day. You would have symptoms of traumatic stress — sleeplessness, fatigue, anxious thoughts, depression — because of the impact on your mental health.

Mental health care matters

It might be easy to forget when we see dramatic statistics — like the 100 million people who are currently displaced — that those numbers represent someone like us. But if you imagine yourself as a person who has lost so much, it’s not hard to see how your mental well-being might be affected.

At Medical Teams, we care for the whole person: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. We believe that mental health care is an integral part of health. Many of the people we serve are living through terrifying events, and their mental health is affected. Their ability to cope when they’ve lost their homes and communities is greatly lessened. We work hard to help restore stability to their lives and help those who need more support.

The following stories are of people who had the courage to get help with their mental health. Stories like these are the reason we know that refugee mental health care saves lives.

Robinah experienced depression

a woman poses with a basket of maize outside a classroom
Robinah, who struggled with depression, holds a basket of maize outside the classroom where she works with her daughter in the Nakivale refugee settlement.

Robinah and her daughter sit together with a group of women laughing and sharing stories while they sort maize. You’d never know they’re actually working, because they’re having so much fun. You would also never know that Robinah, one of the funniest and most vibrant women there, was once so depressed she couldn’t leave her house.

But it’s true. After Robinah and her family packed up all their possessions and spent the last of their money moving across Uganda in the hope for better living conditions, they landed in the Nakivale refugee settlement. The move took a dramatic toll on Robinah’s mental health. She began experiencing symptoms of depression.

Robinah describes her symptoms, saying:

“I was very weak and couldn’t breathe well. I’d get heart palpitations, and I was always afraid. I had too many thoughts in my mind, and I couldn’t eat or sleep. I had a heaviness in my chest that I couldn’t explain, and it got heavier each day. My heart would pump so hard, and this would make me restless.”

Over time, Robinah’s mental health worsened. She couldn’t work or help her daughter with her grandchildren. Things that used to bring her joy, like gardening or playing with her grandchildren, no longer made her happy.

Making the decision to get help

Robinah had the courage to seek help for her mental well-being. After visiting a Medical Teams clinic, she connected to a mental health counselor. She explains, “From the counseling, I learned coping mechanisms like finding a safe place where I feel peaceful. I always go to that place whenever I feel troubled. I also learned the technique of taking deep breaths and breathing out slowly to help me stabilize my heartbeat and calm myself down.”

Today, Robinah’s mental health has improved greatly. She knows what to do when anxiety and depression begin to take over. Now, she can chase her grandchildren around her garden again and laugh with her daughter. Robinah hopes to live to see her grandchildren grow up and get educations.

She gushes, “I’m so thankful to Medical Teams because the heaviness in my chest is no longer there, and for 6 months now my blood pressure has been low. I keep saying to my daughter, ‘I’m alive today because of Medical Teams!’”

Amjad struggled with anger management

A young boy in Lebanon who struggled with his mental health draws with a young woman as they sit on a brightly patterned rug.
Amjad, who struggled with anger management, draws with Carine, a Medical Teams psychologist, to help him process his feelings.

Amjad’s mother, Zainab, pauses and takes a deep breath before delivering this heart-breaking sentiment. She says, “My son is very intelligent. He has nothing to do with the war, he wasn’t even born in Syria. But he is paying for the war as are all other children.”

When Zainab and her husband left Syria for the safety of Lebanon just over 9 years ago, they thought they would only be gone for a few months. Zainab was pregnant with Amjad, who is now 9, and she never imagined he wouldn’t see her hometown. But she knew it wasn’t safe to stay. Bombs were dropped on the city, and many of their neighbors were leaving.

“I think we didn’t only leave our homes,” she says. “We left behind our hearts and dreams.”

Her son, Amjad, has only known life in their community in Lebanon. Zainab describes her son, saying with pride that, “Amjad is very smart. He develops toys and games from scratch, and he’s an A student at school.”

Amjad’s also very attached to his father. Unfortunately, when he left recently for Libya seeking a better job, Amjad started to struggle with his mental health. Zainab says, “Since my husband left, Amjad hasn’t been himself. He wasn’t able to manage his anger, and he started having nightmares and bedwetting.”

Medical Teams’ mental health intervention

Luckily, an outreach volunteer in Zainab’s community encouraged her to take Amjad to Medical Teams. Amjad started seeing Carine, a Medical Teams psychologist, and his mental health improved quickly. Every week, Carine visited Zainab and Amjad at home. She spent time talking to Amjad and using other therapeutic tools, like drawing, to help him process his grief.

Relieved, Zainab says, “After Medical Teams’ intervention, my son still misses his father, but he’s able to express that without showing anger. He’s playing with his friends again and the nightmares are gone.”

Amjad smiles shyly and says, “I want to thank Carine. She helped me a lot, with everything.”

Martha’s mental health suffered after moving

A Burundian mother who struggled with her mental health holds her baby son in a doctor's office.
Martha, a Burundian woman who struggled to care for her son after life-threatening events, sits in a doctor’s office with her young son.

Before political violence came to Burundi, life was good for Martha and her family. She and her husband were overjoyed at becoming new parents to their son, Irankunda, when they had to make a terrible choice. Irankunda was just a month old when they left everything they knew behind for their own safety.

They eventually landed in a refugee settlement in Tanzania, but by then Martha’s mental health reached a breaking point from the severe stress of leaving.

She describes that time, saying, “It was terrible because I was mentally ill to the point that I couldn’t manage myself and my baby. Irankunda was in danger.”

Thankfully, her husband and neighbors brought Martha and Irankunda to Medical Teams. Martha stayed at the hospital for in-patient mental health treatment for 2 months. While she was away, Irankunda received infant formula from Medical Teams so he could stay healthy.

Recovering a sense of mental well-being

Martha says, “The medical treatment from Medical Teams brought me back to my senses. I began to take care of my child like before.”

Once home, Martha took medication for her mental health condition that made it difficult for her to breastfeed. Happily, Medical Teams kept Irankunda on formula.

“I appreciate Medical Teams’ care,” Martha says, now that she’s recovered her mental well-being. “I received the best treatment for my mental illness. I can now manage everything for my family.”

She goes on to say that her wish for the future is to go back to Burundi. She says, “I hope that Medical Teams International’s services should touch all the people in need. If God allows, I will depart back to my home country healthy.”

Natalia had flashbacks and fatigue

A mother poses with her three children
Natalia, whose mental health was affected by violence in Ukraine, stands with her 3 children outside their refugee shelter in Izmail.

When the first rockets hit Natalia’s village, they landed in her neighborhood. The sound was deafening and shook the walls of her house. Natalia and her husband had always called their small village in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast home. They loved the quiet, tree-lined streets and colorful houses. They hoped their children — 2 young boys and a toddler girl — would grow up in the same idyllic place.

Instead, the village became a nightmare. Natalia’s husband had to join the army, leaving her at home with their young family. Whenever the sirens sounded, she would usher their kids into the basement. Natalia began to dread those long, dark nights huddled together. Hearing the explosions and seeing the fear in her children’s eyes was unbearable.

She didn’t want to leave behind their home and her husband, but in early summer, Natalia knew it was time to go.

“I made the choice for my children,” she says. “I wasn’t so much scared for my own life, but worried for them. I knew I needed to leave to protect them, even though this meant heading for the unknown.”

They made it to Izmail, a small town in southwest Ukraine, where a university-turned-shelter welcomed them. Natalia describes the first few months as especially difficult for her mental health. She often experienced flashbacks to the months they spent in Donetsk.

Finding a safe place to process

“I was so tired,” she says, describing the toll the violence took on her mental well-being. “I didn’t even have the energy to fully be there for my children or to set up our room.”

Natalia first met with Iuliya, a Medical Teams psychologist, in the fall. Iuliya had been meeting with other refugees at the shelter who were struggling with their mental health, and Natalia was grateful for her help.

“I started [individual counseling sessions], and it’s been difficult but good at the same time,” Natalia says.

“It’s tough to talk about my memories and it makes me cry, but it helps at the same time.”

Natalia says she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be in Izmail, but counseling has improved her mental health dramatically.

“We can’t go home so we have to make this place home,” she says confidently. “Talking to Iuliya has helped me accept our current situation. I know I want to get better — and I want to make the best out of our time here.”

Mental health care is health care

Each of these stories makes clear how important refugee mental health care is for people living through adverse events. They’re a reminder that our minds are as worthy of care as our bodies are. Without mental health care, lives — and the very joy of living — are at risk.

Show you care for the mental well-being of people living through life-threatening experiences by donating today.

photo of Lauren Hobson

Lauren Hobson
Copywriter & Editor