Kazito Kalima was 14 at the start of the Rwandan genocide. Over just a few months in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi people in his country were killed, including most of his family.
Kalima was bashed over the head with a machete, beaten up and left in a ditch filled with dead bodies. He escaped into the jungle, where he lived for three months eating grass and drinking swamp water.
“It’s hard to understand,” Kalima says. “It’s hard to understand it if you never lived through it.”
It’s a horrific story. Unimaginable, for most people, including many of the mental health professionals Kalima met with to process his trauma. “Some of the counselors I’ve met, they would start crying when I talk. I’m like, ‘You’re supposed to help me,’” he says with a laugh.
Kalima is the founder and executive director of the Peace Center for Forgiveness & Reconciliation in Indianapolis. He came to the U.S. on a basketball scholarship after living as a refugee in East Africa. Now, the nonprofit he founded raises awareness of genocide and other human rights atrocities. It also connects immigrants and refugees to mental health resources.
“Everybody who has been through any kind of civil war, any conflict, might have some sort of mental health issues,” he says.
Refugees are people who come to another country fleeing persecution, war and violence in their homelands. Research shows the trauma refugees suffer before coming to the U.S., and the difficulties they face starting over in a new country, can cause anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in refugees are especially high, says Diane Mitschke, an associate professor in the school of social work at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Sometimes as much as 10 times the rates we see in a typical American population,” she says. “Across the board we do see very high rates of depression, both major depressive disorder and temporal depression.”
There are also clients with mental health needs who never get treatment. How refugees view mental health can vary widely, depending on their education level and if they come from poor or rural backgrounds, researchers say.
Some countries don’t have practicing mental health professionals, says Zhang. That leaves a gap in knowledge about available treatment — and can contribute to a stigma.
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