In Germany, Refugees Are Being Trained as Mental Health Counselors for Peers

The aim of the growing number of programs is to provide refugees with coping skills and someone from a similar background to confide in, the Guardian reports

A mother and her child ride a bike outside of their refugee home in Frankfurt, Germany, July 26, 2016.
Michael Probst/AP

Refugees in Germany are being trained to counsel their peers in a small but growing number of programs aimed at making up for the severe shortage of mental health services available to asylum seekers in the country, the Guardian reported on Thursday.

Launched by Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, the aim of the project is for refugees to learn coping skills and stress management and to provide them with someone from a similar background to confide in.

Germany has taken in more than one million refugees and migrants, mainly from the Middle East, since 2015. According to the report, a study conducted in the same year found that up to 40 percent of refugees had symptoms of depression or anxiety related to the situation in their home country or their perilous journey to Europe

“The German system is totally overwhelmed,” Henrike Zellman, a clinical psychologist working for MSF, said. “When it comes to prevention and help, there’s almost nothing.” And even when there is existing mental health infrastructure, the report explains, language and cultural barriers often separate councellors from refugees. 

Under the supervision of trained psychiatrists, a selected number of refugees who speak Arabic, Somali and other relevant languages are trained to teach stress and anxiety management skills or refer tougher cases to doctors.

According to Abdi Mohamed, a refugee from Somalia who has been trained as a peer counselor, the method works. “It’s unbelievably reassuring to talk to someone in their language from their country,” Mohamed said.