Social-capital-based mental health interventions for refugees: A systematic review

E. Villalonga-Olives, T.R. Wind, A.O. Armand, M. Yirefu, R. Smith, and D.P. Aldrich

Social Science & Medicine, Volume 301 (2022), Article 114787


Social capital can be defined as the “networks, norms and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit”. Social capital can provide a range of benefits, including: an exchange of favors and assistance, maintenance of group norms, stocks of trust, exercise of sanctions, diffusion of information, voluntary organization within a social structure, and participation in social organizations. Social ties within groups (bonding social capital), between groups (bridging social capital), or across levels of authority and hierarchy (linking social capital) can provide assistance and useful information, help overcome barriers to collective action, and afford mutual aid during crises. Social capital can also protect against mental health problems such as depression and posttraumatic stress.

This systematic review analyzes the literature to better understand how social-capital-based interventions can improve the mental health of refugees. From nearly 400 identified articles, only 7 met the inclusion criteria and were included in the systematic review. Refugees studied in these articles came from Bhutan, Nigeria and Kurdish regions, Sudan and Somalia, Syria and other non-specified locations in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East. Most of the studies were conducted in high income resettlement countries (Canada, United States, United Kingdom, and Australia). Only one study focused on refugees in their first country of asylum (Syrians in Lebanon).

The authors classified three types of interventions that target mental health of refugees using social capital: individual, community and multilevel interventions. The most common interventions were community-based and most of them involved periodical group meetings.

Main findings:

  • The reinforcement or creation of social capital, especially bridging and linking types, are an effective way to achieve a positive change in mental health outcomes in populations who have been displaced.
  • Giving refugees access to resources along with periodic group-meetings– to help coping, build connections, understand the new resettlement country or helping to build healthier habits – positively impacted different mental health outcomes. Group meetings built social capital in several ways: they built new relationships and involved access to resources and opportunities in the place of asylum or re-settlement; provided opportunities to connect with the new culture; helped to build cohesion and offered social support, as well as a sense of belonging; and provided an opportunity for social integration and to increase social networks.

The reviewed studies suffered from important methodological problems, including the absence of a clear definition of the target population, the absence of validated instruments to evaluate social capital and mental health outcomes, and the use of cross-sectional rather than longitudinal data.