From the data analysis, three qualitatively different categories related to the overall aim were identified. These were termed: 1) Frozen life, 2) Constant worrying and “overthinking”, and 3) Distractions and peer support.
Participants experienced a state of being that could be characterized as a frozen life, that gave few possibilities to take control over one’s life situation. Nevertheless, when talking about different experiences related to life at the accommodation center, many of the participants were careful to express gratitude that life there provided security, warmth, and a roof over their heads. However, as some described, one of the core aspects of their experiences as asylum seekers was the overwhelming uncertainty about the future and the indefinite waiting time for a decision on their asylum claim. Many participants experienced this as a destructive and unhealthy process:
“…but it’s difficult, because there’s no answer from immigration. There’s no timetable, you don’t know when you’ll have your interview, when you’ll have your answer. You’re staying here, you have no job, you can’t speak the language, you have nothing. Your future is like...you don’t see anything so that’s the thing. So I say most of the people here…I see people who have kids back home in their own countries who are sick. It hurts… […] And the whole situation isn’t healthy.” (Participant #1 -Sudan)
Apart from describing the legal process of applying for asylum and the uncertainty characterizing it as causing distress, participants also described the environmental and social constraints as defining their experience living at the accommodation center. Many of them experienced that their lives at the accommodation center were geographically isolated and described that access to the wider host society was further limited by restricted public transport networks and prohibitive costs. Additionally, small financial resources as well as limited access to social networks in Swedish society or even skills to navigate a new society, including language, were described as adding to the experience of living a heavily confined life as an asylum seeker. In many of the narratives this was further illustrated through statements such as life being so heavily restricted that it could be compared with being a prisoner or as life having stopped. One young participant illustrated this, describing his life as being in a constant frozen state:
“Being an asylum seeker, it’s like your life freezes for some moments. Not just moments but maybe years, you don’t know. Your life just freezes. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. You can’t, me I read Swedish, but maybe after I get my decision, if it’s negative, I won’t use the Swedish anymore. So, it’s just like, your life freezes. Stops. And you just wait for your decision to continue your life.” (Participant #9 -Ethiopia)
This experience of living a heavily confined and frozen life was further illustrated in narratives involving the feeling of being stuck and the fact that the only way forward was through the asylum process, making one’s whole life dependent upon the decision on the asylum claim, and leaving few possibilities to take control of or have any influence over one’s life situation.
Another aspect of the experience of a frozen life, shared by many of the participants, was that the resources and assets that used to constitute their sense of self had been lost or devalued; resources such as one’s education, profession, belongings, networks, family, and social status. In many interviews this was illustrated in statements such as being no one, being a changed person, or no longer being valued as a unique individual, further adding to the overall experience of a life that was stopped or frozen:
“[I used to have] many options, because I have relationships with others, but nobody knows where I am. […] No one knows I’m here and that I’m nothing know. They think I have my company now…” (Participant #2 -Iraq)
It was particularly common to describe the inability to work as something that deeply affected the overall experience of being an asylum seeker and one’s sense of identity and possibility to gain some measure of control over one’s life situation.
Some participants also expressed how a lack of privacy and sharing rooms and other facilities with people from different backgrounds added not only to the feeling of being limited but also to a feeling of insecurity about oneself, indicated by one of the participants talking about his experience of eating with unknown people in the cafeteria of the one accommodation centers:
“I don’t know, sometimes if you put a sane person in a group of insane people, that sane person will probably become insane.” (Participant #8 -Eritrea)
As part of the experience of being in a situation of a frozen life, sometimes for years, many participants also experienced having lost or even being deprived of important time in their life–time that under other circumstances would have been used to achieve life goals such as fulfilling a career plan, studying, working, being with one’s children, contributing to society, or starting a family.
“I am, for example, 38 years old. I don’t know what will happen to me. I have no family of my own, I have no children, I have nothing to think about. Everything is stopped. During this time, you wait, you can do nothing, you’re hopeless. You can’t fall in love, you can’t be in a relationship with someone, you can’t do anything at all, everything is stopped.” (Participant #14- Iraq)
Some expressed that this experience of loss and of being deprived of time to live a life according to one’s personal life goals entailed irreversible losses that they experienced had the potential to impact their future life in a negative way.
Constant worrying and “overthinking”
The experience of life as an asylum seeker, living a frozen life, was spoken of in almost all interviews as a source of constant worrying and overthinking, with overthinking described as negative thought patterns, a state of relentless rumination, that consumed the mind. This shared experience of worrying and overthinking also shared similarities in content, such as worrying about the future and what would happen if one was deported, or dwelling on how one had worded things or the right things to say during interviews with the Migration Agency. Apart from the common patterns of overthinking the possible outcomes of one’s asylum claim, there were also individual differences in the content of thoughts. One of the elderly participants, an illiterate woman, expressed that in addition to worrying and constantly thinking about her asylum claim, she was also experiencing constant worries and fears about her own safety moving around and navigating the new surroundings at the accommodation center. Another factor that seemed to fuel the constant rumination was separation from and uncertainty about one’s family. One participant spoke of her relentless daily questioning of herself for leaving her four children behind and her constant worry about their wellbeing. Being a parent and living with children as an asylum seeker also seemed to add worries over the children’s wellbeing and the possibility to provide for them with limited resources. One participant, who had been subjected to difficult traumas in their home country, indicated that the situation of uncertainty and waiting indefinitely, along with the feeling of insecurity at having to live with unknown people at the accommodation center, aggravated the constant re-experiencing and recalling of these traumas.
Many participants experienced that this state of constant worrying and overthinking had seriously harmed both their physical and mental health. One participant illustrated how the situation as an asylum seeker and the relentless rumination inevitably affected her mental health:
“You already don’t know, your situation isn’t stable, you aren’t stable […] you start to feel nervous. You start to overthink the things and then you’re going to get into a depression whether you want to or not.” (Participant #5 -Eritrea)
Other participants spoke of how constant rumination had affected their physical health and believed it had caused diabetes or impaired vison. To be in this state of overthinking was also reported to cause sleepless nights and extreme tiredness. One participant, who had undergone several years of indefinite waiting for a decision on his and his family’s asylum claim, reported that his brain was so tired of all the thoughts going around in his head that he experienced feeling indifferent to what was happening around him, as well as feeling emotionally cold inside:
“I don’t feel like I have that energy anymore. My brain is tired after all the thinking and pondering. […] I feel a bit like I’ve become cold and indifferent, and just feel like I have no feelings anymore. I have no feelings left, I just let the days pass.” (Participant #4 -Afghanistan)
In line with this experience, some participants also expressed worries that this period of feeling distress would have long-lasting consequences on their health and wellbeing, raising concerns about what would become of them:
“So when you have this long waiting time, you lose hope, you become hopeless. So you lose hope that you can have a normal life in the future.” (Participant #14 -Iraq)
Regardless of the outcome of the asylum process, this participant feared that the experience of being an asylum seeker would have a harmful impact on their possibility to live a “normal” life even after getting a decision.
Several participants also voiced the experience that adding to the burden of constant rumination was the fear of sharing these thoughts with others, not wanting to be seen as week or abnormal. Some participants described that they pretended to feel fine although they were not:
“I always try to show that everything’s good and that everything’s okay with me even in front of the people who are close to me and who see me every day, but really it’s a nightmare I go through.” (Participant #2 -Iraq)
Moreover, some of the participants associated this experience of being afraid to share one’s worries and thoughts with an increased feeling of loneliness.
Distractions and peer support
Participants described different ways of managing their mental wellbeing in everyday life. In general, everyday life at the accommodation centers was described as boring and focused on keeping busy to distract oneself from worrying thoughts and overthinking. Some of the narratives indicated a very monotonic and passive life, mostly spent in bed, distracting oneself with a cell phone or laptop, scrolling through social media, taking contact with family and friends in other parts of the world, or searching for available online courses, interrupted only by meal breaks and chats with roommates. One participant described the free Internet as a blessing for passing the time and keeping one’s mind focused on something besides the negative thought patterns in one’s head. It was not uncommon for these participants to also describe changed sleep patterns whereby they usually slept during the day and lay awake at night:
“After that, when I sit with my phone and check the phone and I do nothing else until three or four in the morning, then I can sleep a little. And the next day it’ll be the same and the same and the same.” (Participant #14 -Iraq)
Other participants described everyday life as centered around daily chores such as cooking, buying groceries, washing clothes, or preparing children for school, which provided a certain routine in daily life, which seemed to offer a distraction from mental distress.
In discussing specific tactics for dealing with mental distress and promoting wellbeing, there were stories about self-medication with alcohol and drugs as well as using prescription drugs to cope with symptoms of mental distress. Others related that religion and prayer were important for getting by. In many of the narratives, self-care activities such as taking a long walk, going to the gym, or reading books were reported to be distractions for the mind:
“I try first and foremost to distract myself, either to read a book or go out or do something that distracts me. I try to do everything to avoid thinking about the problems I have.” (Participant #6 -Yemen)
However, the most common factor said to offer relief from mental distress was social interaction and support from other asylum seekers. Talking to others who were in the same situation created feelings of emotional support and of not being alone with this experience, as illustrated below by one participant:
“It helps to feel that you’re in a family, among people who care about you; that they’re sharing your things.” (Participant #5 -Eritrea)
This, as well as sharing information and advice, were described as important parts of the peer support received from other asylum seekers. Many of the narratives also illustrated how this mutuality in the situation created a concern for others’ wellbeing and a sense of caring for each other. Participants described that they tried to motivate others to leave their room, go out and move around, or talk about how they felt, or that they tried to distract others by engaging in conversation about ordinary things like football:
“But this is what I see, but I see people sometimes having a bad day, yeah so, we try to engage them in a conversation, that’s it, yeah we try to...yeah he’s not feeling good today, then the next day he can come up with some energy” (Participant #11 -Eritrea)
One young participant told of a group of asylum seekers at the center who often organized social activities to ease their minds:
“…like yesterday when we gathered in the room, we felt so ehh we were down, but we didn’t show that we were down. When I just told them that, let’s make popcorn, all of them they got excited. Okay, I’ll make this and I’ll make this and then they put music on. They were dancing like crazy. Truly, they got all the negativity out.” (Participant #5- Eritrea)
Another aspect of this concern and caring for each other was a sense of caring for others in need. Several participants talked about worrying behaviors in others, such as isolating themselves in their room, not talking to anyone, or being sad all the time, often in conjunction with a negative decision on their asylum claim. Especially one participant told of how a sort of crisis management system had been developed among some groups of friends within the accommodation center.
“You surround that person, and you try to give them comfort... […] So you don’t leave that person alone. At least for a week or something. You eat with them, you cook with them, sometimes you sleep together with them. You go to xx [city name] with them or other places. And then after a week, they adapt.” (Participant #8 -Eritrea)
Through this support system comfort, and advice was provided to the person in need until they had adapted to the new situation.
When talking about the importance of social support and interactions, many participants also described how local NGOs facilitated gatherings and provided possibilities for social participation, not only through organizing activities but also through providing possibilities to engage as volunteers. Serval participants spoke of how this kind of engagement created a sense of connectedness and satisfaction at doing something meaningful. However, some participants also mentioned experiencing barriers to social interaction. One elderly woman, only proficient in her native language, described that language barriers prevented her from interacting with other asylum seekers and consequently enhanced her feeling of being alone with her worries. Furthermore, a participant who had been subjected to difficult traumas in the home country also described how mental illness had become a barrier to engaging in social networks and interacting with others at the accommodation center.
Moreover, in the different narratives involving managing mental distress in everyday life, it seemed as if duration of stay had an overall impact, pointing to different phases in ways of dealing with distress. One participant, who also had one of the longest durations of stay at the accommodation center, talked about how he had initially been active and engaged but that he felt he had changed with time:
“I’ve been active, it’s true, but over time you get dead inside yourself as well. This long time of not knowing what will happen in the future, you don’t know the important things, you know nothing, and you can’t plan your future […] I would say this, time can be a killer; that is, when you don’t get your decision, when time goes by year after year and nothing happens. You stay in your place and wait, it’s very deadly.” (Participant #14 -Iraq)
Extended time spent waiting eventually demotivated participants to engage and be active, rendering activities meaningless, and for some created the feeling that nothing makes a difference when it comes to managing mental distress and changing the situation.