In Summary

When Sister Brigid Arthur first encountered “Ana” she was “sparky,” despite being in detention. She appeared physically and mentally well, and was as excited as “the brightest young mother-to-be” about the imminent birth of her first child. The second time they met, the baby was one week old and Ana appeared sad and confused. Sister Brigid recalls her saying tearfully, “I shouldn’t have had this baby here,” and “I shouldn’t have had a baby at all under these circumstances.”

On each subsequent visit the situation was worse. “Her eyes got duller and duller,” says Arthur. “Eventually she became hugely depressed and ended up in hospital in neonatal psychiatric care.”

Ana is one of several new mothers among the asylum seekers held at MITA, the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation facility in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows. Described as “alternative accommodation in a low security setting,” MITA is nevertheless a “place of immigration detention.” At the end of April, 306 people were held at MITA – 122 men, seventy-five women and 109 children.

Ana was transferred to the facility from Nauru late in her pregnancy. Her husband was brought to Melbourne later, in time for the birth of their baby. Other mothers have been transferred to MITA from Christmas Island, which also lacks adequate obstetric facilities. Among this group, a slide into mental illness has become increasingly common.

Brigid Arthur says Ana’s illness is different from the postnatal depression that affects some new mothers in the general community. She is convinced that it is linked to the experience of being held in detention with her newborn baby, not least because of the number of mothers she has visited at MITA who have ended up in hospital in a similar condition, usually after attempting an act of self-harm. “This is the total pattern now,” she says. “There is only one thing causing it and that is detention.”

Arthur has been working with asylum seekers since 2001, when she and other nuns from her order founded the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project. A regular visitor to MITA, she witnesses the torment of fathers as well as of mothers. Mizam, for instance, whose wife has been hospitalised twice since giving birth to their second child, feels deeply his responsibility for their decision to seek refuge in Australia, which landed them in Nauru. He is also acutely concerned about the combined effect of prolonged detention and his wife’s illness on their first child, who is only three years old.

The best that mental health professionals can do is patch these mothers up temporarily before they are sent back to the same conditions that made them sick in the first place – this time with the added stress of being kept under constant surveillance. “The guards can’t win,” acknowledges Arthur. “They need to keep a close watch on these mothers to check they are okay and prevent any repeat attempt at self-harm. But the surveillance itself exacerbates the women’s problems.”

Louise Newman, director of the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology at Monash University, says that the vast majority of medical health professionals would agree that a detention centre is not a suitable environment for a new mother and her baby. “In the context of the terrible uncertainty of their situation,” she says, “mothers often feel stressed and guilty about bringing a new child into the world. Their partners often share that sense of hopelessness and despair.”

Newman says that there is “a steady stream” of pregnant women being brought to the mainland to get access to medical services that aren’t available in Nauru or Christmas Island. (There are currently no women or children held at Manus.) “There are very limited services available at detention centres like MITA,” says Newman, who practises at a psychiatric clinic that has admitted mothers and babies from the facility. “Services like ours are trying to help where we can, but there is no formal arrangement with the immigration department.”

Until it was disbanded in December last year, Newman was a member of the federal government’s Immigration Health Advisory Group. Without the input of the professionals on that body, there is little external scrutiny of what is going on in immigration detention. Newman has observed one baby in MITA who is “badly losing weight” because the mother is incapable of feeding. The young, inexperienced father is doing his best to cope but is also showing signs of depressive illness. Some mothers are suicidal; others threaten harm to themselves or their babies.

Both Arthur and Newman believe that it is impossible for the mothers to get better in detention, not least because recovery could result in their being sent to Nauru. “They are all told on arrival that they will be sent back six weeks after their babies are born,” says Arthur. “They dread the heat, the boredom, the frustration, the constant fear of an eruption of relationships between detainees and staff that will result in violence.”

Written by Peter Mares, Swinburne University of Technology. This article originally published on Inside Story. Read the original article here