Sweden’s sleeping children: the Resignation Syndrome
Due to the refugee movement in Europe during the past years, an illness is affecting families who fled to Sweden. Mysteriously, it is only affecting the children, mostly those of families that seek asylum, and it is happening exclusively in Sweden (Pressly, 2017). After being confronted with the ultimate refusal of their family’s asylum, the children enter an unconscious, coma-like state. They seem to be sleeping, but they are unresponsive towards their environment. These children are only cured when the feeling of security, resulting from the family’s possibility to stay, is conveyed to them.
“They seem to be sleeping, but they are unresponsive towards their environment.”
The illness, labelled Resignation Syndrome (‘Uppgivenhetssyndrom’) by the Swedish government, was first reported in the late 1990s (Pressly, 2017). From 2003 to 2005, more than 400 cases were reported. Sweden’s National Board of Health reports that the children of families originating from the former Soviet Union and the Balkan regions, and children from Roma or Yazidi families, are particularly vulnerable (Aviv, 2017). In most cases, the families have been living in Sweden for some time, are integrated in society, and have adjusted to their new lives.
Resignation Syndrome is also known as pervasive arousal-withdrawal syndrome or depressive devitalisation. It includes social withdrawal, which progresses over time, neglect of the usual daily activities, and a reluctance to engage in them. Over time, the individual stops talking and eating and seeks social isolation. In the most extreme cases, an unconscious state follows, the individual becomes dehydrated, and risks death resulting from physical complications. Experts suggest that the individual falls into a state of hibernation – a response to the intolerable circumstances of their reality (Newman, 2018). Specifically, the hibernation is thought to be triggered by traumatic experiences, which includes psychological problems in their parents and other carers as well as stress resulting from the denial of asylum to the children’s families (Newman, 2018). Other factors may also contribute: some children have experienced trauma in their countries of origin, during their fleeing, or in detention and processing centres.
” Experts suggest that the individual falls into a state of hibernation – a response to the intolerable circumstances of their reality”
There is no definitive answer to the question of how Resignation Syndrome should be treated. Most children are treated in a hospital setting with specialist paediatric teams (Aviv, 2917). To prevent the children’s death, these teams take care of their nutrition, provide intravenous rehydration, and monitor kidney and other bodily functions. Additionally, a Swedish paediatrican, Dr. Largs Dagson, has suggested that mental-health specialists or close family members convey feelings of security and safety, so that a child may leave the state of hibernation due to a perceived lack of danger. However, the child’s parents may not be able to convey such feelings due to their own psychological problems. Parents often require treatment for their own mental-health issues. Until now, there is now evidence that children died because of Resignation Syndrome. Nevertheless, they are few cases of children being bedridden for almost four years.
In the last years, the phenomenon of children with Resignation Syndrome has attracted interest not only from a psychological perspective, but also politically. Some politicians claim that the children fake their condition in order to secure their families’ residence. Due to Resignation Syndrome, Sweden’s refugee policies have become the centre of the discussion. Indeed a change can be observed in Sweden’s political environment with regards to helping the affected children. During the last years, the radicalisation of the Swedish political environment became more apparent by the introduction of border controls, new restrictions on asylum seekers, and the rise of a right-winged party. This current development stands in contrast with Sweden’s general reputation of being one of the most progressive and liberal countries, which already offered shelter to refugees in the 1970s and has been accepting refugees more than any European nations. In fact, the government specifically changed and narrowed down the definition of political refugees. Consequently, families fleeing from countries that are not at war, are now often denied asylum.
“Due to Resignation Syndrome, Sweden’s refugee policies have become the centre of the discussion.”
With the increased prevalence of Resignation Syndrome, there has also been more societal and political engagement on how to deal with it. Five of the seven Swedish political parties demanded amnesty for these children which resulted in a temporary act of the Swedish Parliament, namely the review of 30,000 deportation decisions by the migration board (Aviv, 2017). The Swedish Board of Health and Welfare’s publication of the treatment of the Resignation Syndrome now also highlights the necessity of approving the refugee families’ rights to stay in Sweden for the treatment of Resignation Syndrome. Taking its tense political meaning within and outside Sweden, its novelty and severity, and the lack of research into the phenomenon, it is rather difficult to approach Resignation Syndrome from a neutral perspective. The topic raises conflicting questions about human dignity, the influence of politics on mental health, and the recognition of justice. Still, the scientific importance of how to best classify Resignation Syndrome should not be forgotten. Only with this, the help for the children of the refugee families can be guaranteed. They are the innocent ones taking involuntarily part in a sociopolitical conflict.
Aviv, R. (2017, April 3). The Trauma of facing Deportation. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/the-trauma-of-facing-deportation
Newman, L. (2018, August 22). Explainer: what is resignation syndrome and why is it affecting refugee children?. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-resignation-syndrome-and-why-is-it-affecting-refugee-children-101670
Pressly, L. (2017, October 26). Resignation syndrome: Sweden’s mystery illness. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-41748485