Lena Headey on How Mental Health Support Serves as a Lifeline

Lena Headey with a family at Kara Tepe. (Jodi Hilton/International Rescue Committee)

Lena Headey with a family at Kara Tepe. (Jodi Hilton/International Rescue Committee)

For the past few years Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey has been working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) — an organization dedicated to helping those whose lives have been affected by war and disaster. Last year, Headey spoke with HBO about her involvement with the organization; this year she penned a letter for The Hollywood Reporter about her recent trip to Camp Moria in Greece, where hope is in short supply. (Her letter is reproduced in full here.)

This is a really tricky piece to write. The situation is multilayered. Heavily political. It's the most unsexy issue, it's not cool, its easily ignored by the majority. But here's the thing: It isn't going to disappear, it's not going to stop, so we must find a solution.

This was a brief trip and although our program was heavy, it needed to be. The puzzle can only be understood when you have all the pieces, and there are plenty. We met with the IRC at its mental health center in Mytilene, where a team of young psychologists, case workers and interpreters tries to keep refugees who are stuck at the Moria reception center afloat. The camp is far over capacity — designed for 3,000, it hosts more than twice as many. There were three times as many just before Christmas.

I spoke to an incredible young man, Patrick — he's bright and strong. Sitting with him was a privilege. He didn't want to discuss his journey here, but he did tell me that back home in the Congo, he was a human rights activist and a social worker. He said the help he received from the IRC mental health center is what saved him: "That strength you see? I didn't have it." He now helps others in need and is a vital source of hope at Moria, where there is very little for people to feel hopeful about.

Sixty percent of IRC clients at Moria have considered suicide; 30 percent have attempted it. Overcrowding, lack of sanitation and outbursts of violence are just some of the problems. People must queue for up to three hours in a skinny, metal-fenced cattle run to access food lacking in any real nutrition. Some choose to starve rather than face its dangers. Sexual violence is an everyday occurrence.

Mental health work inside Moria is limited. I have experienced various mental health problems, I've sought help, and I've been able to find things and people that supported me in finding wellness. The mental health support given by the IRC is a lifeline, impeded only by the fact that clients have to return to a place where they are unprotected, unsupported and unsure about their future.

I spoke to a group of Afghan men living at Kara Tepe, a refugee camp turned village five minutes from Moria, though it is worlds apart. At Kara Tepe there's a kiosk for sanitary products, the camp is lit at night, there are communal kitchens, a playground, a kindergarten. People don't want to be here, but at least it's a safer environment. What stuck with me was a father who said his children frequently ask him what language they should learn — Greek, German or English — as they don't know where their new home will be. He doesn't have an answer.

So the question is, Why? Moria is obviously a cautionary tale for those who still make their journey across the sea and arrive daily on the islands: Don't come here. Sexual violence against both men and women is high, and often people encounter their perpetrators inside the camp, living side by side. No amount of treatment can help these people get over the violence they've endured if they are then forced back to a place where they are completely unprotected.

This is a European, not just a Greek, issue. Greece is being left to cope with new and old arrivals on its own, to provide food, to provide shelter, to provide asylum, just because of its geography. The whole of Europe needs to rise to this challenge and rally together to provide a warmer welcome for the refugees who make the treacherous journey to reach its shores, including legal pathways for those looking for protection to get here safely.

I am proud to be an IRC Voice, having experienced some life-defining moments on field trips to Greece and Germany. As an advocate for mental health, the program I saw on Lesbos resonated deeply. As an advocate for refugees, this trip only stressed the urgency of their plight. This is a tough and many-layered issue. Ignoring and hating is not the answer. Integration and education and liberation are key, and that requires all of us.

Find out more about the International Rescue Committee and how to help.