Uprooted by war, Syrian mother gets help to beat depression

Depression is a major health issue facing refugees, but treatment and self-empowerment offer hope to those in need.

Syrian refugees walk through Za'atari camp in Jordan, March 2016.
© UNHCR/Jordi Matas

Looking back now, Noor* can see clearly the impact her depression had on her behaviour and relationships.

At the time, however, as a refugee struggling to raise three children alone in Jordan’s Za’atari camp, the 45-year-old from rural Damascus couldn’t recognize there was a problem.

“People around me told me they had noticed changes in my behaviour,” Noor remembers. “I was aggressive, anxious around my kids, and my relationships with friends and family were becoming difficult. I can see it now. But when people first told me, I was in denial, and simply rejected their advice.”

It took a domestic accident in their shelter while making tea, which Noor blames on her mental state and which resulted in her daughter suffering minor burns, for her to seek the help she needed. “The nurse at the clinic where my daughter was treated noticed my behaviour, and advised me to see someone.”

Depression is the focus of this year’s World Health Day on April 7, and is the most common clinical condition affecting  refugees. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of mental disorders can as much as double in populations affected by emergencies.

“The nurse at the clinic ... advised me to see someone.”

With around half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million forcibly displaced either inside or outside of the country, the six-year conflict has resulted in huge upheaval and loss. Millions have been exposed to hardship and violence, and been torn from their homes, livelihoods and social networks.

“Depression is an issue that deeply affects refugees, not only in terms of their mental health but also their day-to-day functioning, protection and access to services,” UNHCR’s Senior Mental Health Officer Pieter Ventevogel explains.

“The good news is that with access to professional treatment, as well as the support of trained non-specialists and community members, those with depression can get better. By empowering them with knowledge and strategies, refugees can also play a vital role in their own treatment,” he adds.

Noor,* a nursery school teacher who fled the war in Syria, looks on as children play in Za'atari Refugee Camp, in Jordan. She is receiving treatment for depression linked to the turmoil of displacement.  © UNHCR/Christopher Herwig

Noor believes her illness was linked to the turmoil of the past six years, in stark contrast to her settled life in Damascus before the conflict. She and her husband owned two homes in the city, and she had a cherished career as a teacher in a daycare centre.

“I had a beautiful, quiet life. My job gave me independence, and we had security and stability,’ she says. “After the war started I saw a lot of horrible things; rockets and bombs. We were displaced inside Damascus, and that’s when the fear and anxiety began.”

The family moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in search of safety, and in the process spent their entire savings, leaving Noor feeling destitute. She initially came to Za’atari in 2013 with only her three children, after she and her husband had become separated inside Syria and he ended up fleeing to Lebanon.

She struggled to get by in the camp for more than a year before the accident that finally led to her getting the treatment she needed. After being referred to an International Medical Corps (IMC) mental health clinic in the camp supported by UNHCR, Noor was assigned a case worker who oversaw her care.

“Depression is an issue that deeply affects refugees."

After being diagnosed with depression by a mental health professional and prescribed anti-depressants, Noor also attended a series of personal therapy sessions designed to help her contribute to her own treatment. The sessions focused on coping mechanisms and improving her social and communication skills, which she credits with improving her relationships.

She is also grateful for the referral system in the camp that ensured that when the nurse at the hospital first noticed her symptoms, she was able to access professional treatment. Nevertheless, Noor believes that many are still not getting the care they need.

“The crisis has forced people to confront mental illness, but there is still a huge stigma around it. Many prefer to remain untreated than to seek help,” she says.

Today, Noor says she has a more positive view of life, which has been further boosted by a cleaning job in the camp and a garden that she has planted next to the shelter she shares with her children and reunited husband.

“The garden is beautiful, and I have seven chickens and a duck. I enjoy working in it and it helps my mood. I’ve even started doing some community activities, like dressmaking. It’s not like the life I had before, but I’m trying to make the best of what I have.”

You can read more about mental health and displacement here.

*Name changed for protection purposes