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Depression, anxiety soars among asylum seekers

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The incidence of depression and other serious mental health problems has surged among asylum seekers amid a toughening of the immigration detention regime.

Information compiled by International Health and Medical Services, which is contracted to provide health services at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s detention centres, shows that almost 45 per cent of detainees were diagnosed with psychological problems in the September 2013 quarter, almost double the 23.1 per cent reported with a similar diagnosis six months earlier.

The information was obtained by The Australian under Freedom of Information laws.

According to the newspaper, the figures showed that the prevalence of depression rose as the length of detention increased, with nine detainees who had been held for more than 18 months found in the September quarter to be extremely severely depressed.

Underlining the scale of the problem, IHMS reported that 130 detainees had been held for more than 18 months. The contractor warned that the mental health needs of these detainees were likely to increase the longer they were detained.

But, while mental health issues were generally more severe among those who had been held longest, IHMS said they were also found in those detained for shorter periods.

“The pattern shows the negative mental health effects of immigration detention, with a clear deterioration of mental health indices over time in detention,” the company said.

The worrying disclosure follows the Federal Government’s decision late last year to disband an independent group of medical experts established by the Howard Government to advise on the treatment of asylum seekers.

In a shock move, the Immigration Health Advisory Group was abolished by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in late December, at a time when concerns about the adequacy of medical services at offshore detention centres at Christmas Island and Manus Island were multiplying.

The AMA, which had a representative on the Group, has voiced concerns about its abolition and replacement with a sole practitioner, former Army doctor Paul Alexander.

The AMA’s IHAG representative, Dr Choong-Siew Yong, said research showed that those in immigration detention faced a significant risk of developing mental health problems.

Dr Choong-Siew said that, unlike imprisonment, immigration detention was indefinite and the outcome uncertain, and “the research is very clear, that the longer you’re in detention, and the greater the uncertainty, the greater the possible psychological harm”.

The AMA has called for the establishment of a “truly independent” medical panel to oversee and report directly to Parliament on health services for asylum seekers being held in detention.

Adrian Rollins