Manufacturing mental illness

Marissa Ram

By Marissa Ram

Marissa is a Human Rights Center Fellow and Berkeley law student. She is interning with the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, helping to provide legal representation to refugees subject to Australia’s controversial “mandatory detention” policy.

Last week, a mental health nurse was fired from an immigration detention center in Darwin, Australia for saying that mandatory detention contributes to mental illness in asylum seekers.  Just days ago, the Australian federal government’s Detention Health Advisory Group, the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses and the Australian Psychological Society recommended an end to mandatory detention, noting the high levels of self-injury and hunger strikes by detainees.

Immigration detention centers have been called “mental illness factories” by several advocates (see press accounts from The Australian and ABC). Comcare, the federal government’s own workplace safety agency, recently delivered a disparaging report on the conditions within Australia’s immigration detention centers.  The Immigration Department is now facing a potential $250,000 fine for breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Painting by asylum seeker

Painting by asylum seeker, detained at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. Used with artist's permission.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking news to those of us that work at or visit the detention centers regularly. During my visits with detainees at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, the one interruption I can anticipate, like clockwork, is “medication time” around 5 p.m. Detainees queue up in a long line and the contracted doctor dispenses tablets, mostly prescription sleeping pills, painkillers, and anti-depressants.

Today, as usual, just a few of the men have remained afterward. One turns towards me. He often mentions that his almost two years in detention have aged him, but when he smiles, I can see how young he really is. He lowers his voice. “I hate the tablets. I don’t take them. They just make everything here even worse. I want to do something with my life — I believe anyone can do anything, if they put their mind to it — but I can’t contribute to society while I’m in here.”

Most detainees cannot sleep through the night without the sleeping pills. According to many of them, the medication makes them lethargic, unfocused and forgetful (the latter being a real problem during interviews with reviewers asking for detailed accounts of asylum seekers’ histories in order to assess their refugee claims). At the same time, the medication also induces increased compliance from detainees, a welcome side effect for the detention centers wary of further protests.

Several days prior, a detainee called me at night, very upset. “Their only answer for my depression is medication. They gave me anti-psychotics before. I don’t want to take that medication. I told them I won’t do it anymore. Being here (in detention) is what makes me depressed.” The week before, while we sat together on a metal bench bolted to the floor, another had explained, “I’ve witnessed so much here . . . suicides, dying, riots where no one would help (us). If you ask anyone here, they have all seen something. The biggest problem here is self-harm. Hundreds of people have hurt themselves. I saw someone kill himself — he was told he would be deported, so he jumped over the second-floor balcony. The psychologist says I can’t recover here (because) I just keep collecting trauma.”

Post-traumatic stress is common in refugees, especially those fleeing from war zones. Each detainee applying for asylum in Australia meets with a psychologist for an assessment, which is used to determine whether he or she is a genuine refugee. The reports I read all begin to look the same after a while. Each documents a history of severe trauma and eventually recommends moving the applicant out of the detention center after a security check, and allowing him to reside in the community while awaiting approval of his visa application.

Painting by asylum seeker at Villawood

Painting by asylum seeker, detained at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. Used with artist's permission.

Detainees are often in detention months before their first interview. The long wait between interviews, appeals and decisions, worries about family back home and constant fear of deportation exacerbate distress. Conditions are even worse in the detention centers located in remote areas, like Sherger in north Queensland, where detainees receive few, if any visitors.

Detention also takes an emotional toll on the officers, guards, interpreters and other employees who work in the detention centers and often grow close to the men, women and children they see on a daily basis. Serco, the privatized company that runs the detention centers, employs many guards with a prison background. Even the company’s own staff have repeatedly accused Serco of failing to provide its employees with proper training to work with victims of trauma and prevent/respond to suicide attempts.

Vicarious trauma is a serious issue for the staff at the detention centers. Traumatized after witnessing the suicide of a 19-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who hung himself in his room, a young guard took his own life in early July in the very same way. Another guard resigned after witnessing a suicide at Villawood. One employee told me of losing considerable weight from the stress of feeling as though “I basically had to lie to the (asylum seekers) about their chances (of receiving a visa). That was the message I got from the Immigration Department.”

When I leave Stage 1 around 5 p.m. that night, it’s already dark. I still need to visit detainees in Stage 2 and 3, on the other side of the camp. Walking on the dimly lit gravel road that runs between the high fenced-off sections of different compounds, I hear a vehicle pull up next to me. A young man in a Serco uniform leans his head out of the window, offering me a ride to the next compound. On the way, he asks what kind of work I do here, and when I tell him I assist a refugee advocacy organization, he looks reflective. “You know when they get deported? That’s what I’m involved in.”  He sighs. “It’s an . . . interesting job, that’s for sure.”


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5 Responses to Manufacturing mental illness

  1. Noelle says:

    I had no idea that the government contracts out to employ guards with a prison background. You also mentioned that the company Serco has repeatedly come under fire for inadequately training their staff. This should be looked at more closely by the Department of Immigration, who claims (in a previous post) to provide detainees with first-class accommodations. These paintings suggest otherwise.

  2. Saira says:

    Marissa, what a well-written and reflective post. It’s no surprise that depriving humans of their basic liberties will cause depression and suicidal thoughts. Thank you for bringing this important issue to light.

  3. mohsen manochehry says:

    this article is about us,and i appreciate Miss MARISSA for deal with some of our difficulties in detention,I’m someone who was the witness of three suicide in detention that still i have bad dreams and every night i take aroun 150 miligrams imipramin and 300 mg gabapantin in addition one stronge pain killer to help me rest around 5 hours,even recently i have to ask medical to increase the dose of the anti depressant because last dose couldn’t help me to sleep well,i have been in detention 19 facebook name is(mohsen manochehry)

  4. Alexa says:

    Marissa, your posts do nothing but describe exactly what I experienced when I did an internship in Australia this year working as a paralegal with asylum seekers in a detention centre. Just being in a detention centre as a visitor makes you feel like you’re in a jail, so it gave me an idea of how it must be for people actually living there. My talks with detainees confirmed what you have been writing in this blog. I could tell in our conversations that these detainees were trying not to lose hope even though they had been in detention for a long time (far too long!). Their courage is admirable, but it makes me sad at the same time. Some detainees have stayed in touch with me and contacted me in the middle of the night telling me they just needed to talk and couldn’t sleep, anyway. During these phone calls, they don’t have much to say as nothing is happening in detention for them. They feel very lonely, bored, and depressed. Therefore, I know that what you are telling people is nothing but the truth. I believe of people in detention need to be processed much faster and I especially hope that mandatory detention will be abolished permanently. Thank you Marissa for helping to publicize this topic, so more people start thinking about it or hear a different perspective than what the government or media tells them.

  5. Daniel says:

    The title “manufacturing mental illness” has nothing to do with the main point of the article: the terrible conditions of the refugees in Australian immigration detention centers. This article exploits mental illness for the purposes of making a point about the conditions in the centers. Mental illnesses and suicide have many complex causes that are in continuous flux with each other. I’d like to see statistical data on the number of detainees who already have mental disorders when they come. Also, why is the Mohsen prescribed the outdated tricyclic antidepressants? Why don’t they use SSRI’s? And finally, why does Australia even have detention centers in the first place? What other western country treats their immigrants so badly?