Mental health of young refugees: new approach for treatment

The joint collaborative project “Better Care” led by the KU Chair of Clinical and Biological Psychology (Prof. Dr. Rita Rosner) has the aim of improving mental health treatment of unaccompanied young refugees. The research consortium closely collaborates with the child and youth psychology clinic at the university hospital in Ulm, the Günzburg-based clinic for psychiatry and psychotherapy II and the German Youth Institute (DJI) Munich. The German Federal Ministry of Research provides a total funding amount of approx. three million euros for the four-year project period; over 1.4 million euros of which flow into the KU’s sub-projects.

“Between 2015 and 2017, just under 70,000 unaccompanied minor refugees came to Germany. Many of them had traumatizing experiences, so the psychological burden in this group is very high”, explains Rosner. For their healthy development and successful integration into the German society, it is of crucial importance to treat those minors so that they can process the traumatic experiences and find closure. “Although there are already promising approaches for prevention and therapy, it is sad to see that only very few young refugees in Germany actually receive psychological treatment”, says Professor Rosner.

The project “Better Care” seeks to develop and implement a step-by-step approach comprising offers for young unaccompanied refugees, youth welfare institutions, psychotherapists and interpreters. Furthermore, the project will compare its new approach with the standard care offer. Depending on the severity of symptoms, “Better Care” provides patients with exactly the treatment that is best for them. Therefore, participants are screened in a first step of the program to examine their overall mental condition, problems and life quality. In several different questionnaires, participants provide information on the severity of their post-traumatic stress level, depression, anxiety symptoms and substance use as well as on their general life quality and health. Following analysis of the questionnaires, participants and youth welfare institutions will receive feedback on whether there is need for treatment. The questionnaires which are already in use in the practice are offered on tablet computers in ten languages that are commonly spoken by young refugees in Germany.

For participants who are diagnosed with mild to moderate symptoms, the treatment approach suggests a group prevention program titled “My way” as a next step. This program allows education professionals to support young refugees in overcoming their traumatic experiences and in dealing with everyday challenges and burdens. This set of measures was developed in 2016 by experienced researchers and clinicians from the Ulm-based child and youth psychiatry/psychotherapy practice in close collaboration with representatives of youth welfare institutions.

For patients with clinically relevant symptoms, the new treatment model suggests individual treatment in form of a “trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy” (TF-CBT). A 24-months preliminary study carried out by the Psychotherapeutic University Outpatient Department of the KU had already successfully tested this form of therapy and its effectiveness on minor refugees. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder improved significantly, a fact which was also confirmed by the patients themselves.

The researchers also want to use “Better Care” as a tool to disseminate the therapy approach further. To this end, the Chair of Clinical and Biological Psychology at the KU has established an online training offer for certified psychotherapists ( The project team is seeking interested practitioners who offer psychological treatment for refugees. Furthermore, youth welfare institutions caring for at least eight unaccompanied minor refugees can also participate in the study. Interested interpreters can participate in a training session on trauma focused therapy free of charge.

For more detailed information on the project, please visit