CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has voiced its despair at the Nauruan government’s shock decision to end the organisation’s provision of mental health care on the island, saying the situation is beyond dire – and won’t improve until all refugees and asylum seekers detained by Australia on Nauru are taken off the island.

MSF Australia’s Executive Director Paul McPhun told reporters in Sydney the Nauruan government’s “very, very unusual” decision to rapidly end the organisation’s contract was unexpected, given a memorandum of understanding between both parties.

McPhun said that with MSF’s removal from the island, there are now insufficient resources to counter the “vicious downward spiral of despair” experienced by many asylum seekers and refugees with no clear pathway out of the Australian immigration system.

It is that very system which is retraumatising those stuck on Nauru, McPhun said.

“While many asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru have experienced trauma in their countries of origin or during their journey, it is the Australian government’s policy of indefinite offshore detention that has destroyed their resilience, shattered all hope, and ultimately impacted their mental health.”

Dr Beth O’Connor described some of the symptoms she observed during her eleven-month tenure on the island, including a condition among children she termed Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome. 

“Gradually they started to deteriorate. They became more depressed, and they withdrew socially,” she said.

“When I went to visit these children in their homes, they had taken to their bed. They were no longer eating or drinking sufficient amounts to keep themselves alive.”

O’Connor added some children became incontinent and unresponsive as a result of the condition.

“They would just stare through me, and seeing that level of deterioration in the children was really quite horrific.”

McPhun gave a “conservative” estimate that at least 78 of their patients had attempted suicide, had suicidal thoughts, or inflicted self harm; O’Connor ceded the removal of MSF’s staff from the island “could effect the amount of people transferred” to urgent medical care in Australia.

“It’s not MSF’s psychiatrists and psychologists that should be leaving Nauru; it’s the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees that Australia has trapped on the island for the past five years that should be leaving,” McPhun added.

Yesterday, home affairs minister Peter Dutton told The Guardian that he would authorise the transfer of those asylum seekers to Australia “in a heartbeat”, but that “would restart boats and then you would be asking me of the children drowning at sea.”

If you or someone you know is dealing with a mental illness, call BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636. If you are in distress, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Source: Doctors Without Borders
Image: Chris Hopkins / Getty Images