“At night I pace the hallway, tired, anxious and waiting for daybreak to emerge.” The nocturnal experiences of many refugees are a far cry from the relief that many of us feel when we sink into our beds at night.
There have been several sleep related studies over the past few years to look at the sleep problems experienced by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The children’s charity Coram and Canterbury and Christchurch University are two of the more recent Sleep Projects.
Dr Ana Draper, clinical lead and consultant systemic psychotherapist has worked extensively in this area and has helped guide these studies to determine a strategy to support young asylum seekers. Many of the children told her they found it difficult to sleep. “I did an audit of the kids and 87% had disrupted sleep patterns”, she said. “They were hyper-vigilant and stayed awake at night”.
Many of these children travelled through Europe where traffickers kept them hidden at night to ensure safety and when they arrived in Calais, they would search at night to board lorries. Needless to say and in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, the children’s body clocks need help to reset.
Draper explains that the work with the children followed a 3-pronged approach including education through a sleep hygiene presentation with an aim to developing a healthy approach towards sleep. Some of the young people said that they had learnt not to smoke before going to bed, others reported that they didn’t realise that blue light from their phones might hamper sleep and others had been drinking high energy drinks and hadn’t realised this might affect their ability to sleep. A sleep package was given to every child on arrival as well, to help in reversing their body clock.
“When we examined this work there was a 92% reduction in symptoms,” said Draper.
The sleep packs included eye masks, nightlights, earplugs and little bags stuffed with soothing lavender. Interestingly when they left the reception centre, not a single child left behind their sleep pack.
Feedback from those who have received sleep packs from The Separated Child Foundation has been overwhelmingly positive. One mental health practitioner who works with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in West Sussex said: “I recently saw a young man who has been sleeping really badly. We discussed his sleep and normal routine. I gave him a sleep pack and explained what everything was for. When we talked about the nightlight he said that he keeps his big light on all night. So, without the pack, we wouldn’t have had the discussion about his sleep and would never have found out this simple reason why he isn’t sleeping very well. He will now turn the light off and use the night light to stop him feeling scared.”
Another refugee support worker in Hillingdon remarked: “Very impressed that you thought about sleeping packs especially as it is an obvious need the young people have yet they keep being given Amitriptyline and other sleep medications which do not help”.
And one of the most uplifting remarks was when a young asylum seeker said: “I had the best sleep ever; I fell asleep in 5 minutes last night. I still remember the smell of the lavender bag. I feel so fresh!”
Having a place to sleep when they arrive in the UK is an important first step for these children but learning how to sleep at night again once they are here takes time and patience.