Psychiatric status of asylum seeker families held for a protracted period in a remote detention centre in Australia

Aust N Z J Public Health. 2004 Dec;28(6):527-36. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-842x.2004.tb00042.x.


Objective: To document the psychiatric status of a near complete sample of children and their families from one ethnic group held for an extended period of time in a remote immigration detention facility in Australia.

Method: Structured psychiatric interviews were administered by three same-language speaking psychologists by phone to assess the lifetime and current psychiatric disorders among 10 families (14 adults and 20 children) held in immigration detention for more than two years.

Results: All adults and children met diagnostic criteria for at least one current psychiatric disorder with 26 disorders identified among 14 adults, and 52 disorders among 20 children. Retrospective comparisons indicated that adults displayed a threefold and children a tenfold increase in psychiatric disorder subsequent to detention. Exposure to trauma within detention was commonplace. All adults and the majority of children were regularly distressed by sudden and upsetting memories about detention, intrusive images of events that had occurred, and feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The majority of parents felt they were no longer able to care for, support, or control their children.

Conclusions: Detention appears to be injurious to the mental health of asylum seekers.

Implications: The level of exposure to violence and the high level of mental illness identified among detained families provides a warning to policy makers about the potentially damaging effects of prolonged detention on asylum seekers. In their attempt to manage the international asylum crisis, it is important that Western countries do not inadvertently implement policies that cause further harm.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Emigration and Immigration / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Family / ethnology
  • Family / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Indonesia / ethnology
  • Interview, Psychological
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology
  • Mental Disorders / ethnology*
  • Parenting
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Public Policy*
  • Refugees / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Refugees / psychology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / ethnology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires