Family Separation and the Impact of Digital Technology on the Mental Health of Refugee Families in the United States: Qualitative Study

BACKGROUND:

Conflicts around the world have resulted in a record high number of refugees. Family separation is a critical factor that impacts refugee mental health. Thus, it is important to explore refugees’ ability to maintain contact with family members across the globe and the ways in which they attempt to do so. It is increasingly common for refugees to use information and communication technologies (ICTs), which include mobile phones, the internet, and social media sites, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber, for these purposes.

OBJECTIVE:

The aim of this study was to explore refugees’ perceptions of the impact of communication through ICTs on their mental health, the exercise of agency by refugees within the context of ICT use, especially their communication with their families, and logistical issues that affect their access to ICTs in the United States.

METHODS:

We used a constructivist grounded theory approach to analyze in-depth interviews of 290 adult refugee participants from different countries, who were enrolled in a randomized controlled trial of a community-based mental health intervention.

RESULTS:

Analyses showed that communication through ICTs had differing impacts on the mental health of refugee participants. ICTs, as channels of communication between separated families, were a major source of emotional and mental well-being for a large number of refugee participants. However, for some participants, the communication process with separated family members through digital technology was mentally and emotionally difficult. The participants also discussed ways in which they hide adversities from their families through selective use of different ICTs. Several participants noted logistical and financial barriers to communicating with their families through ICTs.

CONCLUSIONS:

These findings are important in elucidating aspects of refugee agency and environmental constraints that need to be further explicated in theories related to ICT use as well as in providing insight for researchers and practitioners involved in efforts related to migration and mental health.