Media release

Refugee children do well - but for how long?

Vietnamese children and adolescents in Western Australia have similar rates of mental illness to that found among children in Western Australia's general population, according to the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia However parents of Vietnamese children may not be aware of their offspring's mental health problems.

A study, conducted by Robert McKelvey, Professor of Child Psychiatry, Dr David Sang, School of Psychology, and colleagues from the University of Western Australia, assessed the rate of psychiatric disorders in Vietnamese children and adolescents living in Perth.

Interviews were conducted with both Vietnamese children 9 - 17 years old and their parents, using child and parent versions of the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children (DISC). The majority of disorders reported were anxiety disorders, especially simple and social phobias.

"Twenty-three parents (4.4 per cent) reported one or more psychiatric disorder in their child, whereas 82 children (15.8 per cent) reported one or more disorders on the DISC," Professor McKelvey said.

"These findings emphasise the need to develop clinical services that are sensitive to Vietnamese cultural traditions that may affect the recognition, reporting and treatment of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders."

In an editorial in the same issue of the MJA, Associate Professor Susan Sawyer from the Royal Children's Hospital, in Parkville, Vic and Professor Harry Minas from the Center for International Mental Health at the University of Melbourne say that the study's findings are important because, despite the fact that many Vietnamese children have been subject to various pre and post-migration stressors, their rates of psychiatric disorder are no different from the general population.

Although there may be a range of explanations for this finding, they say, these data may reflect the success of Australian society in accepting immigrants and refugees.

"Underpinning this success have been legal and policy frameworks for multiculturalism, extensive services that have supported the successful permanent settlement of immigrants and refugees, and the general goodwill shown by the Australian population to immigrants and refugees."

However A/Professor Sawyer and Professor Minas are concerned that refugees who arrive in the current social and political environment may not fare so well.

"Current immigration policy, in the form of prolonged detention of asylum seekers and the move to temporary visas for some, is resulting in harm to the mental health of already vulnerable children, adolescents and adults," they say.

"The mental health impact of this aspect of immigration policy appears at odds with the national mental health policy and with the successful settlement of policies that still apply to authorised immigrants and some refugees".

The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.

CONTACT: (Research) Professor Robert McKelvey


Professor Harry Minas

Sarah Crichton, Public Affairs, AMA (02) 6270 5472 (B/H); (0419) 440 076 (A/H)

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