Healing Power of Play for Rohingya Refugees

Monash University

New research from the Monash Business School has shown how simple activities such as play time and art therapy can significantly improve the mental health and wellbeing of Rohingya women and children at the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh.

The Humanitarian Play Lab program was established by BRAC in 2018 to provide a safe and stimulating place for displaced women and children, with a strong focus on helping preserve Rohingya culture and language through learning, art and play.

Approximately 3500 Rohingya mothers and children participated in the year-long program during which they were provided with weekly support to undertake play-based activities.

A team from the Monash University Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES) found that the multi-faceted psychosocial education program substantially improved the mental wellbeing of mothers who had suffered significant trauma and depression.

Their children also registered significant reductions in trauma and depression, and there were reductions in stunting, being underweight and wasting among children.

“Forced displacement has been a major driver of mental disorders among refugees due to both pre-migration and post-migration experiences, and women and children are the most vulnerable groups among the forcibly displaced,” says Professor Asad Isam, CDES Director and lead author of the research project.

“Our findings imply that policies targeting the mental wellbeing of displaced mothers can be an important stepping stone to developing psychological resilience among their children. This helps them grow into healthy, well rounded adults,” he says.

In 2017, the Myanmar military unleashed a brutal crackdown on Rohingya civilians, sending an estimated 750,000 people fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh amid reports of killings, torture, rape and arson. Most remain there, trying to survive.

Just over half (52 percent) of overall refugees are female, 55 percent are children, with 41 percent below the age of 11 and 18 percent below the age of four.

Today, conditions in the camp are dire with a total reliance on government support, foreign donors and humanitarian agencies for food, shelter and healthcare. Many women have experienced rape and persecution, their children commonly suffer acute malnutrition.

The women exhibit high incidences of emotional stress and trauma as well as post-traumatic stress disorders. However, the interventions of the Humanitarian Play Lab offer hope.

And, in addition to the benefits of the mothers Professor Islam and his colleagues found the intervention improved children’s speech and language development, along with their gross motor skills such as physical movement, problem solving and social skills.

“Poor mental health of adult refugees, particularly among mothers, is considered a risk factor for the psychological well-being and development of their children,” says Professor Islam.

“However, mentally unhealthy mothers that received the treatment caught up to, and often surpassed the mentally healthy mothers in the control group.”

The program, has been extended to reach more than 13,000 mother-child groups but Professor Islam says it can be scaled up much faster with the help and support of international donors.

“This intervention has been a low-cost program delivered by community peers who have worked as volunteers, it is a very cost-effective intervention compared to many other similar interventions across different settings in the world.”

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