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How seeking asylum and being detained impacted my mental health

As a young man, Mustapha fled his home country to avoid religious persecution. He shares with us how seeking asylum and being detained in the UK impacted his mental health.

This blog contains references to trauma and claustrophobia, and shares the real life experience of an asylum seeker. You may find this content upsetting.

My name is Mustapha and, as a young man, I lost everything I held dear to follow the religion of my choice. I left my life in Morocco to seek protection in the UK, but instead, I found myself in detention. It's been two years since I arrived in the UK and my asylum case has been refused several times. The whole experience has had a huge impact on my mental health.

When people think of the persecution people seeking asylum experience, they often think of the physical side. But it can also be mental – and that is no less dangerous.

My story

The day I decided to convert from Islam to Christianity, I lost everything that had been essential in my life up to that point. I lost the faith I grew up with. I lost my country and my community, where many people now wish me dead. But the most difficult to accept is that I lost my family. When my mother said, "I wish you died before telling me because for me you just died today," I felt my heart being crushed a thousand times.

It was at this point that my mental health began to suffer.

Having lost such an important part of myself, all I wanted was the support of my family and my community, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. I began to struggle with extreme anxiety and had to look left and right every time I left my house, expecting somebody to come with a knife and stab me. Whenever someone called my name, my heart trembled.

I left my country in July 2017 to save my own life. That was when I stopped feeling.

When people think of the persecution people seeking asylum experience, they often think of the physical side. But it can also be mental – and that is no less dangerous.

Denied and detained

I arrived in the UK when I was 23. I had nothing – no friends, no family, no home. Thankfully, I found the church, who took me in as one of their own. Now, when someone uses the term ‘family’, I think about my church family.

For a while, I felt like life was improving. But then my asylum claim was refused by the Home Office and I was detained. I cannot describe the feeling of being ‘denied’ by the country that you have sought protection in. Suddenly nowhere felt safe. It made me feel deep loneliness. Suddenly I needed to isolate myself, I felt undeserving.

I spent almost two months in detention. Alone in my cell, I stayed awake at night and slept during the day. I was depressed, undead.

When I was transported to another detention centre, they put me in a prisoner’s vehicle with three other asylum seekers in four separate cells. The cell inside the vehicle was dark and exactly the size of the chair I was sitting on. The journey lasted three hours and I screamed for help the whole way. Ever since then, I’ve been claustrophobic.

In detention, my flashbacks and nightmares grew worse.

Eventually, I was released from detention, but the psychological damage was already done. It was at this stage that I attempted to take my own life.

My mental health had deteriorated and I no longer recognised myself. I felt very sensitive and fragile. The disorder still invades my life, causing me to sleep all the time or being unable to sleep.

Getting help

Since then, I have been lucky to have the support of people and organisations such as the Red Cross, who helped me find a solicitor to work on my case and gain access to weekly therapy sessions so I can start to deal with my trauma. Being able to arrange for help immediately if my symptoms get worse is a great comfort in itself. I’m now on a waiting list for specialist support and I do deep breathing relaxation exercises, which help for the most part.

To other young refugees and asylum seekers struggling with their mental health, I would say don’t waste time or lose hope. Never be ashamed to talk to people about how you feel and let them help you.

Hope through adversity

My asylum claim is still pending and my future is uncertain, but I am determined to challenge the feeling of uncertainty and take advantage of what I have. I qualified as an interpreter and am now studying theology. For the first time in a long time, I feel positive about the future. I will not let my situation or mental health issues come between me and my dreams.

Having a clear vision of where I’m going helps me to get out of the bubble of my life problems. I try to stay focused on this vision and mostly it helps me stay motivated to overcome the difficult times. I try to remind myself that I am bigger than my problems.

To other young refugees and asylum seekers struggling with their mental health, I would say don’t waste time or lose hope. Never be ashamed to talk to people about how you feel and let them help you.

Author: Mustapha

With thanks to the Red Cross' Young Refugee Services for sharing Mustapha's story with us

Find help

If you are struggling with your mental health, have a look at our find help page for advice and information on where to get support.

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