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Understanding the mental health impact on migrant women in Finland during the COVID-19 pandemic

In this blog Omotomilola Ikotun, Anita Navaratnam and Bancy Wawira and Dr. Jenni Martin of Women in Global Health Finland explore how COVID-19 has impacted on the mental health of migrant women.

COVID-19 has changed life as we know it across the world. This change will affect all aspects of life for everyone irrespective of nationality, locality, personality, profession and age. Yet, this pandemic will disproportionately impact women and girls, particularly those from vulnerable populations that are lying outside of the current health and social care systems.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019, Women in Global Health Finland sought to understand migrant access to healthcare during the pandemic as part of their COVID-19 Task Force work. We interviewed three migrant women about their health and wellbeing experiences during the current pandemic. The three women have been assigned pseudonyms to protect their anonymity– *Lucy, an entrepreneur, *Kerry, a registered nurse, and *Abi, a graduate student. They each outlined some of the challenges to accessing health services during this pandemic, including language barriers and cultural barriers, which can result in feelings of isolation, helplessness and anxiety.

In addition to dealing with their own situation here in Finland, these women were also worried about their families in their home countries where in some cases the virus raged at higher rates than in Finland. This further exacerbated their feeling of helplessness and fear for their loved ones contracting the virus and the cost of being impacted by the pandemic; they would not be able to go home as some countries had imposed strict border controls and regulations which made it very expensive and time consuming for them to travel back to their home countries. In the course of the pandemic, some of these women have lost loved ones, which has made them miss their families even more than before.

During her quarantine time, Kerry reported feeling helpless, and having panic attacks about keeping her family in the dark about her condition. 

“The stress almost broke me. The nature of my work poses a substantial risk with being exposed to coronavirus. I took care of COVID-19 patients, and got infected. Lord, was I severely sick!” – Kerry

Kerry also mentioned that after ten years of living in Finland, this pandemic has made her consider returning to her home country.

Barriers to accessing services

As the pandemic raged, financial obligations began to mount. Lucy started to see her business slowing down, making her agitated about the future. She applied for the grant available for entrepreneurs, but the person who was handling her application could not speak English leading to many tense moments. In the same vein, students who were dependent on financial support from their home country were heavily impacted as lockdowns affected financial support.

“I wrote to the Student Housing Agency to ask for a rent holiday for a month and the response was negative and lacked empathy for the situation,” says Abi.

The pandemic especially brought out systemic issues such as language barriers in the public sector. The mental health services that both Kerry and Abi sought were largely available in Finnish. According to Abi, she had to use an interpreter in her session and this created more anxiety for her on the security of her sessions. Abi has decided not to go back to these sessions as she did not feel that it helped her.

Migrants and access to mental healthcare before the pandemic has been the subject of studies by researchers in Finland. Research done in Finland states that immigrants do not use mental health services as much as native Finns do. The stories of the three women show how hard it is to access satisfactory mental health services or achieve the expected outcomes after seeking services as a whole. The three key themes that have emerged from these stories; Lucy would not seek help due to trust and cultural barriers, Kerry had to do the session in Finnish as she feared that if she asked for the session in English it would have been shorter or not available, and Abi had an interpreter at her session which did not go well for her.

For migrant women from more social cultures, being far away from support systems usually supplied by their communities is difficult. The pandemic only exacerbated this feeling of being overwhelmed.  The insights from these three women point to language barriers and a deficit of culturally sensitive services that they have received from the public sector (university housing, grant application and mental health services) during this pandemic.

Areas for further research and discussion

The emerging themes from these stories point to the need for further research to understand accessibility of health services, and the potential outreach activities to engage migrants in Finland, applying a gender-responsive approach.  Furthermore, the healthcare providers in Finland should consider co-designing together with migrant communities on the types of mental health information, access and services which would be appropriate for their needs. This could help address some of the social and cultural determinants of health which would have a greater social and financial impact on society in the long term.

We believe that this feedback could potentially shed some light on the systemic issues in Finland and to help better cater for the needs of migrants possibly in other countries as well. Beyond COVID-19, Finland aims to increase work-based and education migration to improve its economic and societal demands for the future. The health and social care system needs to address the gaps, acknowledge diversity and promote inclusive practices if they want their migrant populations to thrive.


Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.



Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.