Room to Heal is a small, frontline human rights charity based in London. We support refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced unspeakable violence at the hands of others in their country of origin. Many have been raped, tortured, indefinitely detained and have witnessed their families killed.

Those we support – our community members – arrive in the UK hoping for safety and security but, now they’re here, they face further challenges: the possibility of forced return to their country of origin; short-term and often unsafe housing; poverty; a confusing, intimidating and protracted asylum application process; and limited access to welfare and legal support. This leaves many extremely vulnerable to re-traumatisation, disorientation, destitution, and frequent bouts of homelessness. Many of our community members liken this period of their lives to a second trauma.

Our community members need specialist and long-term help to recover from their traumatic experiences, to improve their mental wellbeing and to start rebuilding their lives. 

Merchant Taylors’ Foundation is providing valuable support for our specialist therapy service, which helps survivors slowly heal from their trauma, build safe relationships with others and find renewed purpose in life.

The Room to Heal community restored all good things I had in me, that I had lost contact with for a period of time.

Our therapists start by supporting our community members with one-to-one psychotherapy sessions, working with them to reduce their feelings of anxiety and prepare them to join group therapy. Then, once they are ready to progress, we introduce them to our mixed-gender group therapy sessions: these sessions are central to helping our members join our community, and ultimately in helping them integrate into their wider London community. Our group and community work is crucial in helping members understand they are not the only ones to have experienced the horrors that have been inflicted on them, and they slowly begin to trust others again and begin to experience the support of new and safe relationships.

Our work makes a lasting difference to people’s lives and the community they live in. Our therapeutic community – where (pre-pandemic) we garden, cook and eat together – enables torture survivors to overcome their traumatic experiences together. This reduces their isolation and feelings of shame, stigma and persecution, and helps them find renewed meaning in life.

Our members see improvements in their mental health (such as reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, reduced flashbacks and painful/intrusive memories, as well as a reduction in levels of anxiety and depression). Our members slowly build relationships with others. In time, members take an increasing number of positive actions for themselves that improve and enhance their own wellbeing, indicating renewed hope for their future and renewed purpose in life.

One of our experienced therapists, Emily, shares her experience of working with survivors and how she transitioned from face-to-face to remote support during the pandemic:

“With the arrival of coronavirus, we had limited time to prepare and discuss the implications with members before we went into lockdown. On Tuesday 10 March, the community met, as usual, gathering to talk, cry, laugh and eat together. One week later, we were told not to leave our homes. For members, this sudden, unplanned rupture in their therapeutic process felt reminiscent of previous experiences of separation and loss. Many of our members have survived detention (in their home countries and/or in the UK) and describe the lockdown as a confinement that triggered memories of past traumas. Some have started to relive those experiences more frequently, in the form of flashbacks or nightmares. As a result, we are seeing an increase in sleep problems, anxiety, panic and depressive symptoms.

“Room to Heal’s central ethos is that we heal best collectively. The pandemic has forced the community apart, presenting a significant challenge. As a team, we had to make quick decisions about how to maintain a sense of community and connection without being able to physically be together. Therapists have called group members weekly since the lockdown began, providing one-to-one telephone therapy. During these calls, we shared messages from other members. Members repeatedly referred to the group as their family. They wrote poems for one another, shared tips on how to cope, and consistently expressed a longing to be together amid increased feelings of isolation.

“The pandemic doesn't affect everyone equally. Room to Heal members are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. To get a sense of the challenges they face, imagine how your experience of lockdown would be different if you lived in poverty, in shared accommodation, with numerous physical and mental health conditions, a limited support network, no internet access, no phone credit, or with family in countries with limited healthcare provision. The therapists can help members manage the psychological impact of these issues, whilst our caseworkers respond to the practical problems (for example, helping them access housing, healthcare, food, welfare, education, legal support, and help with navigating the UK’s complex asylum system).

“In May, our therapy group was able to meet again for the first time in several weeks. We met online, and the excitement and joy members expressed at being able to see each other’s faces was incredibly moving. Many members spoke about how being separated has highlighted the importance of the relationships they have developed at Room to Heal. As one member said to me “life is nothing except for love… all this I learnt from the group”. We continue to meet weekly online, keeping members connected and supported through the pandemic and beyond.”