Leaked Psych Report Shows Detention's Toll


The federal government openly states that deterrence is the key objective of its asylum seeker and refugee policy. What it tries hard to deny, and hide, is the immense human suffering that is the logical outcome of such a policy.

A confidential psychologist’s report, obtained by the Tamil Refugee Council and verified by New Matida, tells the story of one asylum seeker who spent more than two and a half years in detention. He is now facing return to the persecution from which he fled. The report was written last year when Labor was still in government.

The psychologist who wrote the report, which is excerpted below, saw him at least once a fortnight for more than seven months. The name "Karan" is a pseudonym to protect his identity.

[Karan] described feeling he is nothing. He feels like an animal.

He presents as a highly-anxious man who shows signs of agitation during sessions. He avoids eye contact and sits slumped in the chair. There are long silences during sessions. Once he engages in a conversation he is not able to contain his emotion and becomes tearful or angry. He repetitively questions my commitment to his well-being. He uses the therapeutic relationship as a source of self-worth and hope.

He is obsessed with the injustice of being detained. He craves freedom and is not able to withstand the moment by moment pressure of on-going confinement. He feels helpless and is pre-occupied with engaging in behaviours to avoid his disempowered position. These include actions to further his plight (e.g. not eating) or numbing of his emotions by sleeping excessively. At these times he lies in bed in an altered state where he is unsure if he is asleep or awake. He has also repeatedly reported taking sleeping pills to maintain on-going sleep.

At other times he is unable to fall asleep till early morning as a result of worries and intrusive thoughts about being returned to Sri Lanka. He also experiences nightmares of fleeing the army and is awoken from these in a state of fear. If he is able to maintain sleep he wakes in the early afternoon and misses his meals. As a result of this and a general lack of appetite, he reports to me that his body does not work and that he feels like he is dead, paralysed and the quality of his body has changed. He also reports heaviness and pain in his chest.

The immense suffering and hopelessness that [Karan] experiences has driven him to focus on thoughts of self-harm. I do believe that he has come to a point where he thinks about suicide as a viable option. He refuses to engage in risk assessment but has alluded to a suicidal plan to prevent spending (another) year in detention.

His helplessness has been exacerbated by Sri Lankan asylum-seekers being returned. He was particularly affected when a man (he knew) was returned. He described to me that eventually this man would disappear, he would be killed by the Sri Lankan army. He was unable to contain his fear and distress triggered by this incident and he began to experience frightening nightmares of being captured, tortured and killed.

[Karan] reports that he does not participate in activities in detention because he sees no purpose in them. He is wholeheartedly committed to his wife and child and his only activity is speaking on the telephone to them daily. He feels worthless because he has never been able to support his family. Despite knowing the limits of my role he engages in on-going action to persuade me to (advocate) for him. He says this is the only opportunity he has to take action to solve his problem. He has received massage (outside the detention centre). Although he experienced temporary relief from painful tension in his neck, he elected not to continue. He does not see purpose in this temporary relief and is not able to cope with the emotions that are elicited upon his return to detention.

In general [Karan]’s mental health is deteriorating in detention. He suffers from poor concentration and is forgetful. Sometimes he is unable to recall our previous session and often content is repeated session after session. He comments that he has no memory. He also has no sense of future and experiences severe fatigue. In recent sessions he has started to become disoriented and has been reluctant to leave the session when it is finished…

Karan’s diagnosis states he is suffering from severe depression, has lost cognitive functioning and thinks about killing himself, all of which have been brought on by more than two and a half years in detention. He is now in community detention, awaiting, along with thousands of others, to hear if he will be returned to Sri Lanka.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.