Arts and Humour for Mental Health of Refugees – The Powerful Benefits

19.June 2022

On World Refugee Day, we want to raise awareness on the unique health needs of refugees and people on the move and to honour their strength and courage. The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day is the right to seek safety, whoever they are, wherever they come from and whenever they are forced to flee.

According to the latest data from UNHCR* for 2021, the number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution is at least 82.4 million worldwide, while among them are more than 33 million children**.

Mental Health at higher risk for refugees

People on the run are exposed to many stressors, which affect their physical and mental health both prior, and during migration, as well as after relocation. These stress factors are the exposure to conflict, violence and life threatening situations before and while migrating; lack of access to services for their basic needs, lack of opportunities for education and development and for mental health. Children who were forced to flee from home endured terrible experiences. They need access to psychosocial services to overcome them otherwise. There is far too little support for them.

The arts promote refugees’ well being

One of the main characteristics/benefits of the arts and art therapy in general, is its ability to circumvent language barriers and explore emotions in a safe space, where they can move and feel in control of the situation and of themselves.

In 2019, the WHO issued a review report that analyses the major role of the arts in preventing ill health, promoting health, and managing and treating illness across 3000 studies. The findings of the report “What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review” include that the arts support people to manage stress and anxiety, reduces the risk of developing mental illness and depression. It also helps building self-esteem and self-acceptance, confidence and self-worth, which all protect against mental illness (WHO p. 23).

The reports also indicates how the arts are beneficial also to caregivers and staff working in healthcare settings. On the one hand, art activities can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, exhaustion and death anxiety for those working in end-of-life care (ibid p. 28).

Red Noses bring humour and hope to children

Reaching safety is just a start. Once they are out of harm’s way, people fleeing war or persecution need opportunities to heal, learn, work and thrive. In emergency contexts Red Noses is present with Emergency Smile, a programme that brings an international team of clowns to crisis situation in order to support children and their families to better deal with their stressful context and envision a better future. Clowns engage with children through parades, during which they call children and families and interact with them in a joyful way; clown shows, where they perform with magic tricks, acrobatics and jokes in front of children and families; and Circus Smile, a five-day clown camp during which children learn juggling and magic tricks, and perform in front of their families in a final show. Emergency Smile also has a specific workshop for people working in crisis settings. The Humour Workshop teach aid workers and community leaders how to deal with stress and improve their relationship within the team through humour and its coping mechanism.

Ongoing monitoring efforts of RED NOSES’ work with children in crisis situations has shown that the impact of clowns extends beyond happiness and laughter. Through the space created by the playful and emotionally honest encounters with clowns, children and adults often feel empowered and safe to express difficult or unpleasant emotions. By improving feelings of self-worth and promoting bonding within the group, the positive impact of joy and laughter helps them reconnect and concentrate on the positive and regain resilience and hope.

People forced to flee should be treated with dignity. The World Refugee Day is an occasion to ensure everyone everywhere at any time is able to enjoy the right to health and access high-quality health services that are sensitive to their needs, and appropriate for each person’s culture, without financial impediment.

We encourage everyone to honor World Refugee Day.
If you wish to know more about our programme and support our missions, please visit the Emergency Smile website.

* UNHCR - UNHCR Figures at a glance
** UNICEF - Child Displacement Report