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Curating the Mind: Recognising mental health as crucial to empowering migrant lives

March 8, 2019


    "I was so tired it felt like I couldn’t control my brain. After a few weeks I was in so much pain, I couldn’t walk or lift anything. I didn’t know if my children were OK. I felt so alone.” This was how Marina Sarno described her experience of abuse in the hands of her employer when she was working as a domestic worker in the UAE, as told in a 2015 report by The Guardian. Her powerful description reveals how the challenges migrant workers face are certainly not limited to economic and social problems. Of equal significance are the psychological struggles they confront regularly, away from family and home. Their very status as migrant workers, which from the onset comes with the risk of abuse, result in mental challenges particular to migrant life.


         Feelings of anxiety, fear, insecurity and loneliness are just some of the mental health problems that migrants experience as they adjust to living in a new environment. These are compounded by being away from family and friends who can provide emotional support. Other factors that may cause emotional distress for migrants are cultural barriers, such as differences in language and religion. Migrants who have experienced forms of abuse, such as those who are victims of human trafficking, are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, according to a manual produced by mental health charity Mind: Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and phobias are 5 times higher among asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants compared to the general population.”


Among the different categories of migrants, female domestic migrant workers are known to be at high risk of abuse. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes that many migrant domestic workers find themselves in working conditions that “put their health, freedom, human dignity and security at risk.” Domestic work often entails isolation and the lack of access to basic social services, as documented in many cases of abuse. It is not surprising to read stories about migrant domestic workers who have suffered inhumane treatment in the hands of their employers. This includes stories of women pushed to the very brink, that they think their only recourse is to take their own lives.


The ILO notes that domestic migrant workers become more vulnerable to exploitation because of existing migrant policies. In the UK, where foreign nationals are allowed to bring domestic workers in their household, domestic workers’ visas are tied to their employers for six months, which does not prevent the strong likelihood of exploitation. London-based alliance, Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, which has helped several Filipino domestic workers escape from their abusive employers, has criticised the UK government for failing to amend the tied visa scheme. In a feature on modern slavery, Shiela Tilan, co-founder of the Filipino Domestic Workers Association which is part of Kanlungan, criticised the existing tied visa scheme: “Even if you are physically abused, verbally abused, and even if you are sexually abused, you can’t change employer, to the slave-master [relationship]. We, all of us, said, we have to make it more organised. We have to do more work.”


While continuing to organise and campaign for pro-migrant rights and policies, Kanlungan has organised a pioneering community-driven art therapy project, Curating the Mind, recognising that addressing mental health is crucial to empowering migrant lives. Funded by People’s Health Trust, the project was launched in June 2018, with free art therapy workshops taking place twice a month. The sessions have so far included various outputs from participants, such as paintings and arts and crafts, which reflect their shared narratives and emotions. The workshops, held in collaboration with community partners and art therapists, offer a safe and welcoming space for migrants to express their joys and sorrows with others who are going through the same experiences. The workshops aim to strengthen ties among the members of the migrant community and ultimately empower them as they face the everyday psychological struggles of being a migrant.


Celina Valenzuela, a participant of the project shares her positive experience: When I joined Kanlungan, the loneliness I felt decreased, because I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Curating the Mind has a huge role in the lives of OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) because it helps you process your feelings.”


Curating the Mind’s Arts Workshop Programme Lead, Sarah Reid, explains the importance of the project to empowering migrant lives, especially the Filipino community in the UK. Speaking about the project, she explains: “I think it’s really pioneering and really innovative, because Filipino migrants are one of the largest migrant communities in the UK. Migrants have far higher mental health needs that are not being addressed by the government. So this small community-led programme is making a step towards helping migrants re-integrate their identity.”


As a way to reach more members of the immediate community in the boroughs of Waltham Forest and Newham,

“Curating the Mind” will launch an exhibition featuring the works of its participants, with the help of arts curator Ameeta Lodhia.  The free exhibition will kick off on 17th March 2019, Sunday, 2:00pm at the Stratford Library, 3 The Grove, London E15 1EL.

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