Topic: Forced migration and refugee health

The 10-year course of mental health, quality of life, and exile life functioning in traumatized refugees from treatment start

Opaas, M., Wentzel-Larsen, T., & Varvin, S. (2020). The 10-year course of mental health, quality of life, and exile life functioning in traumatized refugees from treatment start. PLOS ONE, 15(12), 1-21. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0244730

Refugee patients with severe traumatic experiences may need mental health treatment, but treatment results vary, and there is scarcity of studies demonstrating refugees’ long-term health and well-being after treatment.


In a 10-year naturalistic and longitudinal study, 54 multi-origin traumatized adult refugee patients, with a background of war and persecution, and with a mean stay in Norway of 10.5 years, were recruited as they entered psychological treatment in mental health specialist services.

The participants were interviewed face-to face with multiple methods at admittance, and at varying points in time during and after psychotherapy.

The aim was to study the participants’ trajectories of symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, four aspects of quality of life, and two aspects of exile life functioning.

Linear mixed effects analyses included all symptoms and quality of life measures obtained at different times and intervals for the participants. Changes in exile life functioning was investigated by exact McNemar tests. Participants responded to the quantitative assessments up to eight times.

Length of therapy varied, with a mean of 61.3 sessions (SD = 74.5).

The participants improved significantly in symptoms, quality of life, and exile life functioning. Improvement in symptoms of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, and depression yielded small effect sizes (r = .05 to .13), while improvement in quality of psychological and physical health yielded medium effect sizes (r = .38 and .32). 

Thus, long-time improvement after psychological therapy in these severely traumatized and mostly chronified refugee patients, was more notable in quality of life and exile life functioning than in symptom reduction.

The results imply that major symptom reduction may not be attainable, and may not be the most important indication of long-term improvement among refugees with long-standing trauma-related suffering. Other indications of beneficial effects should be applied as well.