Mental health in migrant families: a trauma healing game? | news today

Unicef, The Lego Foundation and Sesame Workshop met to discuss why paying attention to early childhood in the context of displacement and mobilization is so important.


In 2020, during one of the most difficult moments of the pandemic, two very special guests came to revolutionize one of the most popular fictional families in the world: the Sesame Street family. They were Noor and Aziz, two six-year-old Rohingya twins who joined the TV program to appear alongside Elmo and his friends to educate children in the world’s largest refugee camp about the conditions of forced displacement, social and emotional well-being and mental health.

“These are two very special Sesame Muppets: For most Rohingya children, Noor and Aziz will be the first media characters who look and sound like them,” Sherry Westin of the program’s nonprofit arm, Sesame Workshop, explained at the time. Foundation.

Months before, Sesame Street had already shed light on what it wanted to do to address the new and different humanitarian crises that arise in the context of war and violence: give space to those who need it, and help them find their voice. After research in Jordan and Lebanon, Sesame Workshop found that children displaced by violence in Syria are having trouble expressing their emotions and that something needs to be done to help them. Thus was born “Welcome Susame” (Alan Simsim, in Arabic).

“Welcome Sesame” is a project with which Plaza Sesamo aims to help early childhood identify emotions such as anger, loneliness and feelings of frustration in order to communicate them without using models or negative techniques. It was very well received and had a large investment. What is beginning to be seen after this first stage of success is that the model can be applied to other diasporas such as the Venezuelan or rather the Ukrainian, in which boys and girls also need advice to understand and manage emotions you are languages.

Last week at the UN General Assembly in New York, UNICEF, The Lego Foundation and Sesame Workshop discussed why it is so important to address early childhood in conflict and humanitarian contexts. These organizations recognize that boys and girls are the most vulnerable, but there are very few programs and initiatives that focus on this segment of the population and that work with a different approach, in addition to the few resources that are directed to humanitarian aid. governments and global organizations for this challenge. But to address early childhood mental health and social well-being, we also need to pay attention to fathers and mothers.

“The mental health effects that caregivers have seep into the relationship they have with their children. This is normal. People are bombarded with the effects of conflict, exclusion, displacement and poverty, all of which overwhelm their emotional capacity. As a result, we see unstable, insecure relationships, negative strategies such as punishment, domestic violence, and generally emotional relationships that are a bit cold. Educators have so much on their minds that they don’t have the capacity to respond to what children need. This becomes a developmental issue for children who need secure relationships with their caregivers because they are the ones who will allow them to begin to understand the world and regulate stress. And when they are in conflict zones, these necessary relationships, love and understanding are even more necessary. To the extent that adults have mental health problems, it breaks the children and gives them anxiety and depression,” explained Andres Moya, associate professor and principal researcher at the Faculty of Economics, Universidad de los Andes.

Louis*, his wife and daughter were separated a few months ago at the border. They returned from Cucuta to Caracas, Venezuela after not adapting to the city they had migrated to to find work, housing and products that were scarce in their country. As the opportunities for him open a little more after many months of crisis and knowing that on Venezuelan soil he will not have opportunities at the moment, this musician decided to stay on the side of Colombia to continue trying to find stability that allows them to settle in. In a single place. But the absence of his family was not easy: Luis was plunged into a deep migration grief, a process in which migrants like him assimilate the losses associated with constant human mobilization.

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Grief comes in many forms: ongoing stress, not knowing how to meet financial needs; in confusion and uncertainty because he does not know when stability will return; in isolation, despair or insomnia because he does not have an effective and adequate support system, or in anger and guilt because he had to run away. Also, in most cases, depressed due to being away from family, friends and the culture that shaped us and helped us grow. All situations of conflict and forced displacement share similar conditions that lead to mental health trauma and can be seen in all diasporas and migration waves, without exception: in Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan and more recently with Ukraine, for example. And it is early childhood, to which Lewis’s daughter belongs, that is the most vulnerable group suffering from disorders. For her, as for her mother, life in Venezuela will not be optimal without the father figure of Luis nearby. The whole core suffers from the separation.

Luisa Fernanda Ruiz and David Alejandro Rodríguez of the International Organization for Migration explain that “the absence of the father leaves an excessive burden on single mothers who remain in the place of birth to care for children and other dependent family members. family exhibiting greater parenting problems with their children… children lose reference to parents in their role, their authority, and their role as providers of love and material care. In this way, parents are gradually replaced by other family members, usually grandmothers and aunts in the case of female migration.

Experts point out that “the emotional impact of migration on children and women is characterized by family breakdown and challenges in raising children. This can lead to the adoption of risky behaviors by children and young people and a greater vulnerability to violence, mainly sexual abuse and exploitation. Separation as a result of migration undermines family structures and relationships.”

What can be done so that parents burdened with their own mental problems realize the importance of their role in the proper development of their children? The first thing is to talk and be clear that dealing with the consequences of this migrant fight is a pillar of progress for migrant families.

Moya launched Semillas de Apego in 2014, an academic project that was transformed into a social enterprise to work with displaced people, conflict-affected communities and Venezuelan migrants to help caregivers to turned into a source of emotional protection for their children.

“We realized that we can’t work on the social and economic recovery of families and the goal of lifting them out of poverty if we don’t also acknowledge mental health issues, as they are inherent and quite visible in these populations,” says Moya.

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Semillas de Apego formed an alliance with psychologists at the University of California’s Child Trauma Research Center, who were developing a series of programs and technical manuals to deal with migrant families in the United States. From that relationship grew a curriculum that offers more than 15 weekly group sessions for caregivers to process keys and tools to understanding how children are affected by adverse experiences and trauma and how these can enrich and stimulate caregiving. Just as work is being done to teach boys and girls about their emotions, pedagogy for fathers and mothers cannot be overlooked. That’s why the Sesame Street formats were so timely. Moya says they are now joining forces to combine their techniques and approaches.

“They developed their ‘Welcome Sesame’ program for refugee children in Syria and are also developing a series of digital content that allows for faster adaptation. What we will do with sesame is integrate their videos into our Semillas de Apego program with the mothers we work with, we will be able to reach the mothers and also the children,” says Moya.

Migrant populations need good mental health care because, as Moya states, they carry much more trauma than other groups. For this, the expert says that more efforts are needed on the part of the media to make these needs and proposals visible, to break with the stigmas and taboos that prevent problems from being recognized in time. “Trauma is normal versus abnormal and traumatic events. The strange thing would be that these things happen and one is not affected emotionally,” Moya said. Likewise, new formats are urgently needed to support migrant mental health education. Can dolls, play and Legos help heal trauma? That’s the big bet. More than 50 years of work in the field of education and the brand of the most popular educational series of all time supports his idea. Of course, you have to find a way to integrate parents into the programs as well.

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