Client States: Australia’s Offshore Detainees and the Limits of Therapy


Mental health has become an exceptionally important social and public health issue in Australia. The government has invested billions of dollars in new services, while ubiquitous ad campaigns call on ordinary people to tend to their psychological well‐being. This national valorization of mental health is striking, given the well‐documented psychiatric harm suffered by refugees under Australia’s offshore detention regime. This article draws on ethnographic work with a group of volunteer therapists who provide crisis counseling to these detained refugees over WhatsApp, allowing them to intervene in scenarios where therapy is inaccessible but badly needed. Highlighting the predictable challenges and surprising affordances of delivering care in this restrictive and high‐stakes context, I show how my informants forge a genuine therapeutic connection with their clients. While this intervention is meaningful, I argue that the volunteers are aware that it is no substitute for winning political freedom.