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22nd January 2024

New research aims to improve the wellbeing of sanctuary seekers through physical therapy

A researcher who became separated from her family after she fled Nigeria as a teenager is hoping to improve the wellbeing of other sanctuary seekers through a study funded by Health and Care Research Wales.

Tinuola Agnes Gunwa came to Ireland in 2002 to seek sanctuary and is now working as a doctor specialising in psychiatry. She described it as an ‘honour’ to contribute her experience and knowledge to support people seeking sanctuary.

The study, of which Tinuola as the co-applicant, is led by Dr Paula Foscarini-Craggs and will look at the role physical activity plays in promoting people’s wellbeing after their traumatic experience. The research team will develop a movement-based therapy with sanctuary seekers taking part in teaching.

Tinuola said: “A lot of people seeking sanctuary are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the trauma that made them to flee from their countries, or the difficult journeys they had gone through.

“Traumatic experience can affect our everyday life, impacting both physical and mental health as they are interlinked.

“During my time, I was a very sad child. I was separated from my family and lost contact with them. I didn’t know where they were as mobile phones were not common in Nigeria at the time and I missed them.

“I remember when I was seeking sanctuary, we did a lot of dancing and movement-based activities. Looking back, I realised that I felt a lot lighter and happier each time after dancing.

People tend to engage better if there is someone with lived experience. I will be leading some of the groups to create a safe environment of trust.

“I’m really happy that I’m able to be part of the study. It’s a privilege for me to instil some hope and trust for them.”

Dr Paula Foscarini-Craggs, Trials Manager at the Centre for Trials Research at Cardiff University, said that research showed up to 50 per cent of sanctuary seekers had a traumatic experience when they were forced to flee from their country, causing more complex physical and mental health needs.

With a professional background in health psychology, Dr Foscarini-Craggs believes that physical activity plays an important role in promoting people’s wellbeing.

She said: “Sanctuary seekers have a lot of difficulty accessing healthcare support in the UK. There’s a lot of barriers around, like languages, or understanding different healthcare systems.

“We’re trying to develop a movement-led therapy as evidence had shown that treating mental and physical health together is better than treating them separately.”

In her study, Dr Foscarini-Craggs will create a new therapy that integrates both exercise and education.

She continued: “The intervention is physical-activity based that includes mindful breathing, yoga-based postures and strength building.

“We will also include educational components and participants will be taught to understand the symptoms when a person is having panic attack, and what sort of activities, whether it’s breathing or physical exercises, that can improve those symptoms.”

Dr Foscarini-Craggs’ research will customise the therapy to accommodate people’s needs in the UK, and also to involve people seeking sanctuary as peer leaders to deliver the intervention.

She said:

We want to help people build their confidence and stay physically active because it’s good for their mental health. We are looking to modify the therapy and bring it to healthcare providers like physiotherapists, GPs, occupational therapists in the UK, but most importantly to people seeking sanctuary themselves.”