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9 Experts to Watch on Mental Health and Refugees

Most refugees live in countries with scant mental health resources, despite a growing body of research on how displacement impacts mental health. In this edition of our ‘Experts to Watch’ series, we look at some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in this field.

Written by Zahra Asghar, Kim Bode, Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Uganda 531
A mental health clinic treating South Sudanese refugees in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda. Gael Cloarec/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many of the world’s 22.5 million refugees have lived through unimaginable traumas, including the persecution that caused them to flee their country and the often dangerous journey to a place of relative safety.

Yet the mental health needs of refugees go far beyond recovery from traumatic events. Recent studies show that how refugees are treated once they arrive in a new country – including whether they are detained, or have access to work, study and stable services – compound the impact of past traumas on their mental health.

Even so, around 84 percent of refugees live in low- and middle-income countries, where there is often little mental healthcare for the local population, let alone new arrivals. While international and local organizations endeavor to fill the gaps, a lack of resources for mental health and the stigma associated with mental illness often stand in the way.

“The ineluctable reality is that most refugees with mental health problems will never receive appropriate services,” conclude the authors of a recent study in World Psychiatry journal.

In the latest installment of our “Experts to Watch” series, we introduce nine experts whose work has broken new ground or provided fresh insights into mental health and displacement.

Nancy Baron

Nancy Baron is the founder of the Psycho-Social Services and Training Institute in Cairo (PSTIC). Having worked on mental health programs around the world for U.N. agencies and NGOs, she saw a need to focus on training refugees living in the chaos of an urban – rather than a camp – context in how to deliver psycho-social services, especially in the Middle East. She founded PSTIC in Cairo in 2009. The institute trains refugees in mental health and psycho-social support, and facilitates them to deliver services to their own communities in their own language and in accordance with their cultures and traditions.

Mohammad Abo-Hilal

Mohammad Abo-Hilal is a Syrian psychiatrist who fled to Jordan in 2011 after being arrested and tortured by the regime. With several Syrian psychologist colleagues in his new country, he founded Syria Bright Future, a nonprofit providing psychiatric and psycho-social services to refugees, as well as training community volunteers to give mental health support. In 2014, the organization expanded its work to Turkey, where they work on mental health programs inside Syria and for refugees.

Pieter Ventevogel

Psychiatrist and medical anthropologist Pieter Ventevogel is the U.N. refugee agency’s (UNHCR) senior mental health officer. He previously worked on mental health projects in Afghanistan and Burundi, and consulted for UNHCR and the World Health Organization in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria. Ventevogel also spent five years as the editor of the journal Intervention, dedicated to mental health in areas of armed conflict. His recent research includes a study of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh that found high levels of mental-health disorders, including PTSD and depression.

James Gordon

James Gordon is the founder and director of the Center for Mind and Body Medicine. A clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and family medicine at the Georgetown School of Medicine, he has championed mind-body techniques, including meditation, yoga, self-expression, drawings, movement and small group support, to address trauma and depression. Since he founded the center in 1991, it has worked in Israel, Gaza and Kosovo and recently trained Syrian refugee community leaders in Amman, Jordan. Previously, Gordon was chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy under Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush. He is the author most recently of “Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.”

Lynne Jones

Lynne Jones is a writer, child psychiatrist and visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her 2017 memoir “Outside the Asylum: A Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry” details her two decades working in international relief and mental health. Her previous book, “Then They Started Shooting: Growing Up in Wartime Bosnia,” explores children’s experiences of conflict. She recently co-created Migrant Child Storytelling, a website where migrant children tell their stories through words and images.

Derrick Silove

Professor Derrick Silove is director of the Psychiatry Research and Teaching Unit at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He has published extensively on mass trauma, including in East Timor and Vietnam, as well as refugee mental health. He helped develop the state’s refugee mental health service, STARTTS, and has created a number of manuals for mental health professionals on transcultural psychiatry. Professor Silove was the co-chair of the International Committee for Refugees and Other Migrants at the World Federation for Mental Health.

Segane Musisi

Segane Musisi is an expert on mass trauma and mental health in Africa. He is professor of psychiatry at Makerere University in Uganda and editor-in-chief of the African Journal of Traumatic Stress, the first peer-reviewed journal on rehabilitation from trauma in Africa. His recent study of the mental health of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda found considerable needs, but few available services.

Renos K. Papadopoulos

Renos K. Papadopoulos is director of the Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees at the University of Essex, U.K. A Jungian psychoanalyst, he has worked with refugees and torture survivors as a consultant to the U.N. and the IOM, among other organizations. He founded the master’s and doctoral programs in refugee care at the University of Essex and London’s Tavistock Clinic. Recently, he was given an award by the European Family Therapy Association for his “outstanding contribution to the field of family therapy and systemic practice.” He lectures and offers specialist training internationally, and his writings have appeared in 15 languages.

Emily Holmes

Emily Holmes is a visiting professor in psychiatry at Oxford University, where she focuses on the effects of extreme stress and emotion on the brain. She founded the Experimental Psychopathy and Cognitive Therapies Group promoting experimental psychology techniques. She also leads a mental imagery lab developing innovative treatments for PTSD in refugee populations.

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