Why Am I Still Here? The Impact of Survivor Guilt on the Mental Health and Settlement Process of Refugee Youth

  • Jacinta Goveas
  • Sudharshana Coomarasamy
Part of the Advances in Mental Health and Addiction book series (AMHA)


Introduction to Topic

People who survive traumatic events, such as war or serious illness, may experience guilt because they survived. This is called ‘survivor guilt’, a complex phenomenon that is not given much attention by mental health professionals. In the case of refugees, this guilt can lead to issues that inhibit settlement in the new society, such as idealization of the past, a desire to return home and resistance to claim their place in the new society.

Main Argument

The refugee experience, prior to arrival in Canada, can be a major cause of mental health issues during settlement in Canada. There is a ‘relationship’ between pre-migration, successful adjustment into the new society and mental health. Though survivor guilt is generally classified under post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), it is multifaceted; more complicated than stress. Survivor guilt may be intergenerational, as memories and guilt for having survived are passed on. Traditional responses to identify and address mental health issues may limit recovery. It is crucial to develop a broader understanding of the refugee context, even prior to flight, in order to respond appropriately to mental health issues.


Despite abundant research and literature on refugees and young people who have survived forced displacement, literature on survivor guilt is often subsumed into discourse on post-traumatic stress syndrome. Conventional mental health interventions do not explore the deeper trauma of refugees. This chapter explores the concept of survivor guilt and its impact on the mental health of refugee youth and their settlement in Canada. It discusses the importance of a holistic approach and for practitioners to acquire an understanding of the refugee experience, country of origin, cultural responses to mental health and a holistic understanding of appropriate responses.


If not identified and addressed, survivor guilt holds people back from fully integrating into their new context. It limits participation in the exercise of citizenship. People suffer in silence, even within themselves. In several instances, this has led to suicide; to a yearning to join those who have gone. This chapter attempts to provide a broader understanding of survivor guilt and the importance of developing a holistic approach in addressing emerging mental health issues.


Refugee Survivor guilt Psycho-social Settlement Trauma-informed practice 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Applied Health and Community StudiesSheridan CollegeOakvilleCanada
  2. 2.York RegionNewmarketCanada

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