Mental health implications of detaining asylum seekers: systematic review

Br J Psychiatry. 2009 Apr;194(4):306-12. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.108.053223.


Background: The number of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced people worldwide is rising. Western countries are using increasingly restrictive policies, including the detention of asylum seekers, and there is concern that this is harmful.

Aims: To investigate mental health outcomes among adult, child and adolescent immigration detainees.

Method: A systematic review was conducted of studies investigating the impact of immigration detention on the mental health of children, adolescents and adults, identified by a systematic search of databases and a supplementary manual search of references.

Results: Ten studies were identified. All reported high levels of mental health problems in detainees. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were commonly reported, as were self-harm and suicidal ideation. Time in detention was positively associated with severity of distress. There is evidence for an initial improvement in mental health occurring subsequent to release, although longitudinal results have shown that the negative impact of detention persists.

Conclusions: This area of research is in its infancy and studies are limited by methodological constraints. Findings consistently report high levels of mental health problems among detainees. There is some evidence to suggest an independent adverse effect of detention on mental health.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Emigrants and Immigrants / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Refugees / psychology*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Time Factors
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult