Mental health of asylum seekers deteriorates with longer detention

November 20, 2003

US authors of a research letter in this week's issue of THE LANCET highlight how prolonged detention has a substantial negative impact on the mental health of asylum seekers.

There are an estimated 5000 detained asylum seekers in the USA; they are often held in detention (forced to wear jail clothes and transported in shackles) for months or years pending adjudication of their asylum claims. The Bellevue/New York University School of Medicine Program for Survivors of Torture in New York City and Physicians for Human Rights in Boston report a study in which 70 asylum seekers detained in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were interviewed. This study is a follow up to a recent report: From Persecution to Prison: The Health Consequences of Detention for Asylum Seekers (

At the beginning of the study, 54 (77%) of asylum seekers had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety, 60 (86%) of depression and 35 (50%) of post-traumatic stress disorder. Increases in these symptoms were directly related to the length of time that individuals were detained.

Participants assessed after release from detention had marked reductions in all psychological symptoms, but those still detained were more distressed than at initial assessment.

Allen S. Keller (Assistant Professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and the study's principal investigator) comments: "Our results suggest that detaining asylum seekers exacerbates symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder in this vulnerable population. Our findings suggest that policies concerning detention of asylum seekers should be reviewed, and highlight the need for mental-health interventions to address the psychological needs of these individuals."

Contact: John Heffernan, Physicians for Human Rights, T) 617-413-6407 E); or Pam McDonnell, NYU School of Medicine Office of Public Affairs T) 212-404-3555.


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