3 Dec 2018

MSF report details 'disastrous' mental health on Nauru

4:29 pm on 3 December 2018

The humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières has likened the mental health situation on Nauru to that of victims of torture.

Children outside RPC3 tents.

Children outside RPC3 tents. Photo: Refugee Action Coalition

The charity has released a report - "Indefinite Despair" - containing medical data from its 11 months on the island treating asylum seekers and refugees detained there under Australia's offshore detention policy.

MSF found a far more severe situation on Nauru than in many global emergencies it deals with, using a mental health scoring method known as Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF).

Waiting in limbo for five years amounted to a lower GAF score than torture victims MSF had treated, the report found.

"We found this loss of control was associated with major psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress disorder. We also found the loss of control was associated with higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts," said one of the psychiatrists involved Dr Beth O'Connor.

The report found among 208 refugee and asylum seeker patients, 60 percent had suicidal thoughts and 30 percent attempted suicide, one as young as nine years old.

Dr O'Connor said the charity had seen improvement in only 11 percent of cases and it treated several people in a semi comatose state suffering abject despair.

"Twelve of our patients had what we refer to as resignation syndrome and this is a severe form of depression where people fall into a catatonic state. They stop eating, they stop drinking. They stop speaking. Ten of our patients who experienced this were children."

MSF also found a disturbing trend of families crumbling if one member was taken off island for medical care.

"It was incredibly common," Dr O'Connor said.

"When they tried to look after each other, they would just crumble and other family members would become more and more unwell."

The Nibok refugee settlement, Nauru.

The Nibok refugee settlement, Nauru. Photo: Pool / NZ Herald / Jason Oxenham

The organisation has called for an immediate end to Australia's offshore detention policy and the evacuation of asylum seekers to a safe place where families can be together.

Meanwhile Australia independent MP Kerryn Phelps is introducing a bill into parliament today which would require people held in offshore detention to be transferred temporarily to Australia for medical treatment.

"The reports that we're getting from (PNG's) Manus Island and Nauru are that the medical services are unable to cope with the clinical need and I would really like to see the government and the opposition work in a bipartisan way to resolve this crisis once and for all," she said.

The bill is expected to face an uphill battle given both the government and the Labor opposition support offshore processing.

The Nauru government forced MSF off the island two months ago later accusing it of using its healthcare services as a guise for political activism.

MSF said since the Nauru government told the charity to leave its patients had continued to deteriorate.

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