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Empathy and sympathy: how migration and mental health are inseparable

West Africa
IOM MHPSS migrants as messengers world mental health day west africa Senegalese actor Antoine Danfa in action during a theatre caravan on awareness raising in Mbour, Senegal. Credit: Amanda Nero/IOM a OIM

The coronavirus pandemic triggered a worldwide mental-health crisis. Although, one forgets easily that the psychological minefield by returned migrants was looming long before.  When familiar sources of enjoyment evaporate after the homecoming, we cannot forget the real struggle these migrants go through. 


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (WHO, 2004). 


World Mental Health Day is one day that gives the world an opportunity to raise awareness on mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. Its main objective is to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide. 


Given its mission to uphold the dignity and human rights of migrants, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) applies its Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) approach, which lies in the fundamental interrelation of bio-psychological, socio-economic/socio-relational and cultural factors; in all its programs and interventions. The most recent IOM program being the awareness-raising campaign (AWR) called Migrants as Messengers (MaM) that is being rolled out in 7 countries in West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone). 


By widening the focus of an awareness-raising programme to the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of the returned migrants involved as Volunteers, the MaM campaign aims at opening safe spaces for more than 300 Volunteers to encounter and animate discussions between peers.


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Therietta, a returned migrant and MaM Volunteer from Nigeria. She participates in all the MaM activities and shares her story whenever she can. Credit: Amanda Nero/IOM


More protected than the public spaces of active citizenship, these are settings in which returnees can deepen important exchanges on distress and resilience. Many of them shared for the first-time dramatic aspects of their journey and the challenges encountered upon return, finding among their peers listening, support and a mutual recognition of the value of their experience”, says Marilena Crosato - Community Engagement Officer at IOM. 


The MaM campaign challenges/innovates the MHPSS approach in 3 aspects: it reinforces the participatory approach to community engagement activity design and implementation; it accentuates the rooted importance of storytelling, and it makes peer communications, support and groups the new black, again. 


Sharing stories of their journeys with their peers to create awareness of the astonishing resilience they exhibit in the face of the sudden changes, helps the Volunteers to find their place among the others in their community. In Senegal the MaM campaign uses a well-known African tradition like storytelling to assists the Volunteers to understand that migration has always been one of the main aspirations of human beings. They are accompanied by a psychologist and an experienced storyteller in African tales around a wood fire. The objective: guide them in the awareness process that will lead them to normalise their history or experience before sharing it with their peers. 


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The storyteller in African tales in action in Senegal around a bonfire. Credit: IOM Senegal


One Volunteer expressed the positive impact of the activity as follows: "It was very good, the story of the vulture and the cow, it touched me so much. That's exactly what happened to me with the smugglers. Tales really talk about life; you learn a lot from them. I want to use this to make people understand not to get carried away by beautiful words.” 


When one migrates, a separation from the trusted social environment like family comes into play. If we can’t know where we are safe, then we can’t know when we are safe. Fast forward to the homecoming. Like so many aspects of migration, the journey’s mental-health toll is not distributed evenly. The friends, the family and by extension the village exhibit very pronounced different forms of reactions. A possible response to combat the stigmatisation suffered upon return, is by training returned migrants in expressing their emotions through various techniques like dance or art 


Successive research has shown that art-based support could be a strong tool for communication about one's individual experience. As progress is made towards improving and promoting safe migration principles and practices, art-based support becomes an even more important tool for facilitating communication of migrants’ experience and expression of emotions and thoughts which are difficult to put in words.


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The painting that Queeneth, a MaM Volunteer, made during the Speaking Through Art workshop in Nigeria credit: IOM Nigeria. 


Sometimes words cannot express what we passed through in Libya but Speaking Through Arts gave me another tool to express my experiences through paintings without fear of discrimination”, says Friday Queeneth a MaM Volunteer based in Edo State, Nigeria. The activity encompasses not only the migrant’s experience told through images, but it is also an empowerment strategy where participants could learn the skill of empathy and sympathy. 


MaM  activities are developed with the communities of the migrants. The psychosocial well-being of migrants is indeed strongly linked to factors that are strictly interrelated with the concept of community. These include a sense of belonging and identity, exploring social roles, experiencing cultural readaptation, or emphasising the dynamic between tradition and change 


Solomon Correa, a dance teacher and member of the Supportive Activists Foundation in The Gambia worked with some of the returned migrants. Dance gives them the sense of community where different people share their emotions together. It’s therapy. After dance, they can feel ease of their burdens and the pain they are going through” he says 


To this end, the MaM campaign sometimes uses dance a powerful advocacy tool, which can inspire young people, interest the more sceptical and promote debate on migration, while improving the psychological and emotional state of the messengers themselves.


migrants as messenger the gambia capoeira mental health
The MaM Volunteers in The Gambia in action during the capoeira (a Brazilian artform that combines dance and martial art) class Credit: IOM The Gambia 



In Côte d’Ivoire, the MaM campaign organised a workshop on body acceptance. The relationship between body and mind can be outright engaged in this journey where both are exposed, have suffered and are overcoming the invisible barrier between them. This comprehensive approach can help them link a new old part of themselves and ratify their new acquired self-awareness.


“By participating every Saturday in these body acceptance classes, I give myself up for an afternoon,” says Aicha Konaté, a MaM Volunteer from Côte d’Ivoire. “I became aware of the weight of emotions and the importance of releasing them. I want to learn to forgive myself sincerely and to free my heart from all the resentment, anger and sadness that I still hold as a result of the difficulties I went through in Tunisia and Libya.”


For many years the reality for returned migrants in West Africa has been this one: when it comes to expressing mental health issues, one must shy away to avoid stigmatisation. Sometimes when they make their voices heard, their communities remain tone deaf for a call for help that goes beyond the material things. It is a call for help on the psychosocial well-being of individuals and groups, after a potential trauma. For returned migrants, the state of well-being that characterizes good mental health is challenged by factors that are inherent to the very definition of mental health and the circumstances of some migration paths. 


At an organizational level, the response will depend on extensive screening, which is to the mental-health side of the pandemic roughly what testing is to the physical-health side. 


We need to remember these hard-won lessons: migrants are not passive victims of changes affecting their familiar environments, but they are active stewards of their own well-being. This knowledge should empower us to make the changes our societies require because every migrant deserves a place to come home to. 


migrants as messenger côte d'ivoire body acceptance dance
Aisha Konaté, MaM Volunteer from Côte d’Ivoire in action during the body acceptance dance in Abidjan. Credit: IOM Côte d’Ivoire