Skip to main content

Mental health and resilience among Eritrean refugees at arrival and one-year post-registration in Switzerland: a cohort study

Abstract

Objective

Eritrea is the most frequent country of origin among asylum seekers in Switzerland. On their journey through the desert and across the Mediterranean Sea, Eritrea refugees are often exposed to traumatizing experiences. The aim of this study is to assess the mental health status and resilience of Eritrean migrants in Switzerland upon arrival and one-year post-arrival, using standardized mental health screening and resilience assessment tools.

Results

At baseline, 107 refugees (11.2% female, median age 25) were interviewed: 52 (48.6%) screened positive for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (score ≥ 30), 10.3% for anxiety (≥ 10) and 15.0% for depression (≥ 10); 17.8% scored as risk/hazardous drinkers (≥ 8). The majority (94.4%) had a high resilience score (≥ 65). For one-year follow-up, 48 asylum seekers could be reached. In interviews 18 (38%) of these reported imprisonment in a transit country and 28 (58%) that they had witnessed the death of a close person along the migration route. At the one year assessment, rates of risky/hazardous alcohol use remained unchanged, rates of positive PTSD screening tended to be lower (50.0% (24/48) at baseline vs 25.0% (12/48) at follow-up), as were rates of positive screening for anxiety (8.3% vs 4.2%) and depression (14.6 vs 6.3%).

Introduction

In Switzerland, Eritreans have formed the largest group of asylum seekers for the last decade. In 2018 alone, out of the 15,255 refugees who sought asylum in the country, 18.5% were Eritreans, followed by refugees from Syria (9.1%) [1].

Many refugees from Eritrea are at risk of being exposed to mentally traumatizing events, be it in their country of origin, or during the migration journey to Europe [2, 3]. Such mental trauma could potentially predispose migrants to develop mental health problems during migration, at or after arrival in their host country. Further, several of the macro and micro root causes of migration also contribute to the wellbeing and mental health status of migrants [4]. Moreover, migration by itself is a frequent cause of impaired mental health [5].

Psychiatric problems constitute a substantial burden to migrants, both during the migration route and post-migration [6,7,8]. The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among migrants has been reported to be 47% [9]. Médecins Sans Frontières reports that 31% and 20% of newly arrived African refugees coming from Libya and landing in Italy had PTSD and/or depression, respectively [10]. A qualitative study conducting in-depth interviews with 10 Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees in Switzerland revealed that somatic and mental health problems are often overlapping and perceived as an entity. Thus, mental health conditions may be underdiagnosed in host countries [11].

In this manuscript, we provide data from mental health screening and interviews among Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees shortly after arrival in Switzerland and at the one-year follow-up.

Main text

Methods and materials

Participants

The study was conducted in refugees’ centers of two cantons (canton Basel-Land and Basel-Stadt) in the northwestern part of Switzerland. Recently arrived (arrivals in 2014 and 2015) refugees and migrants from Eritrea, who were at least 16 years old and who had no major medical complaints, were invited to take part in the study. The recruitment period was from February 2016 to November 2016. Study participants were approached through the registers provided by the cantonal social assistant offices. Invitation letters written in Tigrigna (an Eritrean local language) and English were sent by mail to potential participants. Refugees and asylum seekers, who were interested in taking part in the study, were briefed on the phone, and invited to the outpatient department of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH).

This study is part of a larger study that involved an extensive health check-up, including screening for infectious diseases, cardio-vascular risk factors, and mental health-related problems on arrival and at one-year follow-up. The detailed recruitment procedure and results for infectious diseases and cardio-vascular risk-factor screening have previously been described elsewhere [12]. In this manuscript, we present the data on mental health and resilience screening at arrival and one year follow-up. All participants provided written informed consent for enrollment.

Data collection

Interviews took place in a closed room to ensure confidentiality and were conducted in Tigrigna by the first author. Four standardized questionnaires were applied: For alcohol use, the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) [13], with a scale from 0–40 was used. To screen for depression, anxiety and somatic problems, the Patient Health Questionnaire Somatic Anxiety and Depression Syndrome (PHQ-SADS) package was used [14]. The package is composed of Patient Health Questionnaire-15 (PHQ-15), Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 (GAD-7), and Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9). The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Check List-Civilian Version (PTSD-CL-S) was used to screen for PTSD [15], and the 14-Item Resilience Scale (RS-14) [16, 17] to measure coping and resilience ability.

One year after baseline screening, participants were contacted and invited to a follow-up assessment using the same questionnaires and interview procedures plus an additional questionnaire on experiences during migration and current status of integration in Switzerland.

Analysis

All data were collected on paper-based forms and subsequently entered into spreadsheets and EpiInfo version 7 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 1600 Clifton Road Atlanta, USA) using double data entry. Continuous variables are reported as median with inter-quartile range (IQR); prevalence is reported as percentage with 95% confidence intervals (95%CI). Due to small numbers at follow up, analysis is descriptive. Reporting in this manuscript follows the STROBE guidelines for cross-sectional studies (https://www.strobe-statement.org).

Ethics statement

The study protocol was reviewed and approved by the institutional research commission and ethical review board of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH, Basel, Switzerland; reference no. FK 120; approval date: June 24, 2015), and the national ethics committee of Northwest and Central Switzerland (reference no. EKNZ 2015-353; approval date: November 20, 2015). Participation was voluntary, and hence, people could withdraw from the study at any time without further obligations. Data were processed anonymously.

Results

In total, 107 participants were recruited. Table 1 summarizes participants’ characteristics. The majority were males (89%), and the median age was 26 and 23 years in men and women respectively (Table 1).

Table 1 Demographic information of Eritrean refugees recruited for the study, at baseline

Table 2 summarizes results of the mental health screening at enrolment. Nineteen (17.8%) had an AUDIT score ≥ 8, indicating risk/hazardous alcohol consumption according to the thresholds recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Applying recommended thresholds, the prevalence of positive screening was 15% (16/107) for depression, 10% (11/107) for anxiety, and 10% (11/107) for somatic disorders. For PTSD, 49% (52/107) screened positive. The majority had moderate to high resilience scores on RS-14 (94%; 101/107).

Table 2 Mental health screening results at baseline (N = 107)

Out of the 107 participants enrolled, 48 (45.0%) attended the one-year follow-up screening. The remaining participants had either moved to a different canton or out of Switzerland (45.0%), or declined participation in the follow-up visit (10.0%). Table 3 provides socio-economic characteristics and reported traumatic events during the migration process from these 48 participants. The median duration of the migration journey (from Eritrea to Switzerland) was 8.5 months. Imprisonment during transit to Europe was reported by 38%, and 58% stated having witnessed the death of a close person during migration. One-year post-arrival the majority, 58% still did not have a stable residence status in Switzerland; nearly all lived from social assistance and reported a monthly net income below CHF 1000.

Table 3 Potential factors that may influence the mental health condition and resilience of newly arrived refugees and migrants from Eritrea; conditions reported in one year follow-up (N = 48)

Additional file 1: Table S1 displays the mental health screening results at baseline and at the one-year follow-up in the sub-group with complete one-year follow up data (N = 48). Rates of hazardous alcohol consumption did not change substantially. There was a non-significant trend to improvement in somatic symptoms, anxiety disorder and depression. The prevalence of positive screening for PTSD halved from 50% (24/48) to 25% (12/48). Resilience scores remained high.

Discussion

This study assessed the mental health status and resilience among Eritrean migrants at arrival in Switzerland and one-year post registration. On arrival, almost half of Eritrean refugees screened positive for PTSD. Positive screenings for other mental health conditions were less frequent. Apart from alcohol use that remained unchanged, the prevalence of positive screening decreased for all other conditions at the one-year follow-up. This change was, however, not statistically significant. In general, Eritrean refugees showed high resilience scores. Interviews with participants revealed that the majority were exposed to psychological harm during their transit to Europe, i.e. imprisonment in one of the transit countries or witnessing the death of a close person. Such events are likely to be the cause of the high prevalence of PTSD at arrival in Europe.

In line with our findings, several studies report close to 50% prevalence of PTSD among migrants and refugees arriving in their host country. However, published studies included no or very few participants from Eritrea or East Africa [9, 13, 18, 19]. As shown in Table 3, a high share of participants in our study has experienced psychological trauma. Similarly, a study investigating traumatic experiences of East African migrants arriving in Israel showed that 56.0 and 34.9% of men and women respectively had been victims of various forms of violence [3].

At baseline as well as one-year post registration, participants had high scores on the resilience scale (Table 2 and Additional file 1: Table S1). The high resilience may be a reason for the reduction of positive PTSD screening at one-year follow-up and the overall rather low prevalence of depression and anxiety disorder in this refugee population [20, 21].

In summary, as shown in other refugee populations, our data demonstrate a high burden of mental health conditions at arrival in the host country, particularly PTSD. Further, even though we observed a tendency to improved mental health status one year post-registration, one out of four participants still screened positive for PTSD. These findings should sensitize health authorities as well as clinicians in host countries to consider screening for mental health conditions among Eritrean refugees.

Limitations

This study has several limitations, mainly the relatively small sample size of 107 participants, and only 48 participants who could be included in the one-year follow-up analysis. In addition, there is relatively low participation of female refugees. Moreover, while interpreting our findings, one must be aware that they rely on self-reporting and that the thresholds used in the applied questionnaires constitute a positive screening result but not a definite diagnosis of the respective mental health condition.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study are not publicly available due the study is part of a larger cohort study, and the data set is not yet publicly available. But are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Abbreviations

AUDIT:

Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test

PTSD:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PHQ-SADS:

Patient Health Questionnaire Somatic Anxiety and Depression Syndrome

PHQ-15:

Patient Heath Questionnaire-15

GAD-7:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7

PHQ-9:

Patient Health Questionnaire-9

References

  1. 1.

    SEM. Asylstatistik Archive ab 1994. State Secretariat for Migration (SEM). Switzerland. 2020. https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/de/home/publiservice/statistik/asylstatistik/archiv.html.

  2. 2.

    Laub Z. Authoritarianism in Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis. Council on Foreign Relations. 2016. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/authoritarianism-eritrea-and-migrant-crisis.

  3. 3.

    Nakash O, Langer B, Nagar M, Shoham S, Lurie I, Davidovitch N. Exposure to traumatic experiences among asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan during migration to Israel. J Immigr Minor Health. 2015;17(4):1280–6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Foresight: migration and global environment change (2011): Final Project Report. The Government Office for Science, London. 2011. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/287717/11-1116-migration-and-global-environmental-change.pdf.

  5. 5.

    Markkula N, Lehti V, Gissler M, Suvisaari J. Incidence and prevalence of mental disorders among immigrants and native Finns: a register-based study. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017;52(12):1523–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Turrini G, Purgato M, Ballette F, Nosè M, Ostuzzi G, Barbui C. Common mental disorders in asylum seekers and refugees: umbrella review of prevalence and intervention studies. Int J Ment Health Syst. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13033-017-0156-0.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Kazour F, Zahreddine NR, Maragel MG, Almustafa MA, Soufia M, Haddad R, et al. Post-traumatic stress disorder in a sample of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Compr Psychiatry. 2017;72:41–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Silove D, Ventevogel P, Rees S. The contemporary refugee crisis: an overview of mental health challenges. World Psychiatry. 2017;16(2):130–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Bustamante LHU, Cerqueira RO, Leclerc E, Brietzke E. Stress, trauma, and posttraumatic stress disorder in migrants: a comprehensive review. Braz J Psychiatry. 2018;40(2):220–5.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Crepet A, Rita F, Reid A, Van Den Boogaard W, Deiana P, Quaranta G, et al. Mental health and trauma in asylum seekers landing in Sicily in 2015: a descriptive study of neglected invisible wounds. Confl Health. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13031-017-0103-3.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Melamed S, Chernet A, Labhardt ND, Probst-Hensch N, Pfeiffer C. Social Resilience and Mental Health Among Eritrean Asylum-Seekers in Switzerland. Qual Health Res. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732318800004.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Chernet A, Probst-Hensch N, Sydow V, Paris DH, Neumayr A, Labhardt ND. Cardiovascular diseases risk factors among recently arrived Eritrean refugees in Switzerland. BMC Res Notes. 2019. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-019-4715-0.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Babor TF, Higgins-Biddle JC, Saunders JB, Monteiro MG. AUDIT: the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test: guidelines for use in primary health care. 2nd edn. WHO 2001. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/67205/WHO_MSD_MSB_01.6a.pdf;jsessionid=FE7E0D8D0DC14C23FC6DC733FCC61DE8?sequence=1

  14. 14.

    Pfizer. Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ) Screeners. PHQ-SADS. https://www.phqscreeners.com/images/sites/g/files/g10060481/f/201412/English_1.pdf.

  15. 15.

    Weathers FW, Huska JA, Keane TM. PCL-C for DSM-IV Boston: U.S. National Center for PTSD-Behavioral Science Division. 1991. https://georgetown.app.box.com/s/eansip1sx4ol2r4c8qd1?ext=.doc.

  16. 16.

    Wagnild GM, Heather MY. Development and psychometric evaluation of the resilience scale. J Nurs Meas. 1993;1(2):165–78.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Pritzker S, Minter A. Measuring adolescent resilience: An examination of the cross-ethnic validity of the RS-14. Child Youth Serv Rev. 2014;(44):328–33.

  18. 18.

    Hocking DC, Kennedy GA, Sundram S. Mental disorders in asylum seekers: the role of the refugee determination process and employment. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015;203(1):28–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Perera S, Gavian M, Frazier P, Johnson D, Spring M, Westermeyer J, et al. A longitudinal study of demographic factors associated with stressors and symptoms in African refugees. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2013;83(4):472–82.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Arnetz J, Rofa Y, Arnetz B, Ventimiglia M, Jamil H. Resilience as a protective factor against the development of psychopathology among refugees. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2013;201(3):167–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Nakash O, Nagar M, Shoshani A, Lurie I. The association between acculturation patterns and mental health symptoms among Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol. 2015;21(3):468–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Authors are grateful for the willingness and active participation of the study participants.

Funding

This research did not receive any specific grant from any funding agencies.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

AC, NP, and NL designed the study protocol; AC, VS, and NL implemented the study; AC, and NL analysis and interpretation of these data; AC, DP, and NL drafted the manuscript; AC, and NL read and approved final version. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Afona Chernet.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate

The study protocol was approved by the institutional research commission of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH, Basel, Switzerland; reference no. FK 120; approval date: June 24, 2015) and the ethics committee of Northwest and Central Switzerland (reference no. EKNZ 2015-353; approval date: November 20, 2015). A written informed consent was collected from all voluntary participants of the study.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.

Competing interests

No conflict of interest was declared by all authors.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary Information

Additional file 1: Table S1.

Mental health screening at baseline and one-year follow-up (N = 48).

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Chernet, A., Probst-Hensch, N., Sydow, V. et al. Mental health and resilience among Eritrean refugees at arrival and one-year post-registration in Switzerland: a cohort study. BMC Res Notes 14, 281 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-021-05695-5

Download citation

Keywords

  • Asylum-seekers
  • Eritrea
  • Migration
  • Refugees
  • Resilience
  • PTSD
  • Mental Health
  • Switzerland