Determinants of mental illness among humanitarian migrants: longitudinal analysis of findings from the first three waves of a large cohort study

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Background: As refugee numbers grow worldwide, understanding prevalence and determinants of mental illness in this population becomes increasingly important. Methods: We used longitudinal data to examine the initial years of resettlement in Australian refugees with a focus on ethnic-like social support. Three annual waves from a longitudinal, nationally representative cohort of 2,399 humanitarian migrants recently resettled in Australia were examined for two mental illness outcomes: post-traumatic stress disorder indicated by positive PTSD-8 screen and “high risk of severe mental illness” (HR-SMI) by Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K6) ≥19. Generalized linear mixed models examined demographic and resettlement factors. Findings: Contrary to predictions, high prevalence of positive screens for mental illness persisted over 3 years. At baseline, 30.3% (95% CI, 28.5–32.2) screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 15.4% (95% CI, 14.0–16.9) had HR-SMI. Over the 3 years, 52.2% met screening criteria for mental illness. PTSD was associated with older age, females, Middle Eastern birthplace, increasing traumatic events, more financial hardships, having a chronic health condition, and poor self-rated health. HR-SMI was associated with females, Middle Eastern birthplace, unstable housing, more financial hardships, having a chronic health condition, poor self-rated health, and discrimination. Also contrary to predictions, like-ethnic social support was positively associated with PTSD (OR, 1.51; 95% CI, 1.10–2.09). Interpretation: There is high prevalence of positive screens for mental illness throughout initial years of resettlement for refugees migrating to Australia. Our unexpected finding regarding like-ethnic social support raises future avenues for research. Predictors of mental illness in the post-migration context represent tangible opportunities for intervention and are likely relevant to similar resettlement settings globally.
Original languageEnglish
Article number545
Number of pages12
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 2 Aug 2019

Cite this