Interpreters working in mental health settings with refugees: An interdisciplinary scoping review.

Maya Fennig, Myriam Denov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The consequences of language barriers are some of the most fundamental challenges refugees and asylum seekers face, undermining both the accessibility of mental health services and the quality of the services received. This scoping review provides the first synthesis of research on interpreters working in mental health settings with refugees, one of the most prominent yet understudied strategies to improving language access and the cultural appropriateness of services for this unique population. Comprehensive searches were conducted in PsycINFO, Medline, Web of Science, Social Services Abstracts CAIRN, and Erudit for relevant journal articles and book chapters published up to April 2019. A total of 84 peer-reviewed studies met the inclusion criteria. Publications represented a range of disciplines including social work, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, public health, medicine, psychiatry, and nursing. Six thematic areas were identified: (1) Lack of adequate interpretation as barrier to care; (2) Emotional impact of interpreting on the interpreter; (3) Training and supervision; (4) Impact of the interpreter on the process of psychotherapy/mental health intervention; (5) The impact of the interpreter on the intervention outcome; and (6) The role of the interpreter. The results indicate that despite undeniable challenges, including concerns around confidentiality and bias, when clinicians and refugee clients do not share proficiency in a common language, interpreters have a positive impact on refugee clients’ quality of care and clinical outcomes. The implications of these findings for host countries providing mental health services for refugees globally are considered and recommendations offered. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved) Public Policy Relevance Statement: Language and communication barriers between refugee clients and their mental health providers may work to curtail access to treatment, lead to ineffective or inappropriate care, and serious clinical errors. The evidence gathered and analyzed in this scoping review suggests that interpreters enrich the therapeutic process and improve clinical outcomes. Thus, it is vital that policymakers expand the role of interpreters, as well as develop appropriate training and supervision strategies, all of which can improve the quality of care and outcomes for refugee clients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-65
Number of pages16
JournalAmerican Journal of Orthopsychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • interpreters
  • language barriers
  • mental health
  • psychotherapy
  • refugees

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


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