Talking mental health among Kuwaiti Bidoon living in the UK

Andreas Björklund, University of Oxford
/ 6 mins read

In a collaborative workshop in February, Kuwaiti Bidoon living in the UK, researchers and practitioners discussed mental health issues arising from long-term forced displacement, improving access to treatment and creative ways to raise awareness.

Human X

What happens to human life left in limbo that never seems to end? What happens to the body and mind? What can be done to address this type of suffering? And how can these difficult topics be sensitively addressed to protects people’s well-being and privacy?

These were some questions that prompted a collaborative project between the Kuwait Community Association (KCA), a UK-based organisation working with issues of concern for Kuwaiti Bidoon, and Andreas Björklund, a PhD student researching Bidoon forced migration to Europe.

For the last three decades, thousands of stateless persons known as the Bidoon (without nationality) have left their homes to seek asylum in Europe, and in particular the UK. One notable problem they face is to prove their identity, which often involves a paradoxical situation of having to present evidence that one does not hold any identity documents. As a result, many are initially rejected on credibility issues, often because they are suspected of being from other countries, a similar suspicion levelled against them by Kuwaiti authorities.

Many Bidoon are therefore left stranded: neither able to return to Kuwait as stateless persons lacking travel documents, nor able to regularise their status. Appealing a rejection takes a long time. As do other processes, such as family reunification, even in those cases where leave to remain is granted.

The heavy toll on physical and mental health from living in such precarity is well-known. But so far, there has been little sustained and organised interest in the issue concerning the Kuwaiti Bidoon’s situation.

Knowledge exchange

For the past few years, I have been researching Kuwaiti Bidoon forced migration to Europe and most of the 200 persons I have met have expressed concerns about their mental health. Sometimes these are based on difficult experiences or abuses in Kuwait. Other times, they are expressed as nearly entirely the result of becoming ‘stuck’ in irregularity in Europe. The issue is alarming, with several persons having mentioned thoughts about self-harm. The situation has often been described to me as ‘social’. Several suicides in Kuwait among the community have caused widespread distress among those who live in Europe.

With support from the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, a workshop was organised in February 2023 bringing together members of the Kuwaiti Bidoon community with researchers and healthcare practitioners. The purpose was to begin systematically gathering testimonies on mental health in the UK-based Kuwaiti Bidoon community, assessments of currently available treatment and ways to spread awareness and ideas to improve access to treatment.

Five members of the Kuwaiti Bidoon community with experience of forced migration attended this first initiative. They were men born between the 1960s and 1990s, in a range of different family circumstances, educational backgrounds and legal statuses in Britain.

Several key themes emerged:

  • Physical effects of mental health issues restrict people’s ability to manage daily tasks, plan routine activities and enjoy themselves or find pleasure in life. Most attendees expressed that they had personal experiences of physical ailments arising from stress.
  • Difficult consequences for family and social life. A major concern for all attendees involves the ability to maintain relationships with loved ones due to long-term separation or difficulties in adapting to new and different circumstances in the UK. Moreover, several members described challenges to form or strengthen new relationships in the UK when health issues dampen confidence, energy or interest.
  • Limiting communal engagement. Attendees discussed mental health implications on the ability to plan and carry out community activities. Many in the community only feel able to focus on personal or family problems.
  • Existential anxiety, especially aging, preoccupies both the younger and more senior community members. Several attendees spoke of a ‘lost’ or ‘stolen’ youth, of the life of their children passing by in absence, and of rupture with their homes in Kuwait. ‘We have been cut out from our environment,’ as one attendee put it, ‘and our children’s link to our country, our social norms and the Arabic language.’
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There were also presentations from Dr Francesca Brady and Sana Zard, clinical psychology researchers from University College London who have worked in NHS clinics where Kuwaiti Bidoon are referred for treatment. However, of the over three-dozen people so far referred, only one had completed the two-phased treatment plan. They felt that the low follow-through in treatment was due to:

  • Insufficient knowledge on the part of clinicians of the wider context facing Kuwaiti Bidoon forced migrants in the UK.
  • Community sensitivities around discussing mental health.
  • A feeling that legal and practical problems people face take precedence, leading to individual health not being seen as a priority.

Community members who had had experience with mental health services had mixed feelings about their reception and treatment. Slow responses or even rejections of referrals had been frustrating, as well as the feeling that mental health services were only ‘dealing with symptoms rather than causes’. One attendee described it as follows:

‘Mental health services have been very compassionate and supportive in the past, but I was disheartened because there was only so much they could offer when I reached out to them on different occasions. I feel it is futile because whatever support is available so far seems to be designed to help me cope rather than overcome mental and psychological trauma.’

We are in the process of collating more detailed research findings and reflections from the workshop into on an online exhibition. In doing so, another issue arises: how can such stories be shared sensitively?

Creativity and awareness-raising

The workshop therefore also considered how to talk and spread awareness about a topic that remains sensitive. Community members noted that while mental health issues are important and need to be normalised, they can also be stigmatising.

In the words of one community member: ‘we suffer, but don’t want to be called “crazy.”’ There are concerns that sharing personal issues can cause embarrassment and reputational damage. Other community members disagreed and wanted to publicly share intimate details. How can an inclusive environment be fostered?

We invited a documentary filmmaker, Dea Gjinovci, to participate in the workshop. She ran a creative arts and modelling session with those present, where people could explore ways to tangibly portray their thoughts, feelings and dreams without having to reveal personal details or examples from their own lives. This material will be used to create a short documentary film on the topics explored, visualised through creative visual production and anonymised testimony. This material will also be published on the online exhibition in summer 2023.

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February’s workshop was a productive first step in getting together people with a shared interest in bettering knowledge about mental health issues in the Kuwaiti Bidon community, and how treatment can be improved or made more accessible. We know that evidence-based research is crucial to proposing ways to work toward viable solutions. We also know that this type of work requires a broadened engagement with community members of different genders, ages and circumstances. The work continues.

For updates in due course, please visit the website for the project ‘Human X’.

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