Psychiatry researcher studies mental health in refugee camps

Oct. 5, 2016, 10:25 p.m.

Stanford researcher Laila Soudi recently traveled to refugee camps in Greece where, amid the squalid conditions, she began working on her mission to provide mental health aid to refugees.

Now a psychiatry and behavioral sciences researcher at the School of Medicine, Soudi’s concern for refugee mental health began at an early age. Growing up in Jordan, Soudi witnessed the conditions in refugee camps firsthand and became aware of the mental health gap in the Middle East. According to Soudi, patients lack access to treatment programs, and the stigma surrounding mental illness further prevents patients — especially underserved refugee populations — from receiving the healthcare they need.

“In Jordan, for example, we’re talking about 7 million people and no more than 50 clinical psychologists for the entire country … actually have a Ph.D.,” said Soudi. “We’re leaving people who’ve been exposed to the worst conditions ever, like war and persecution and lack of basic services, to people who don’t really know how to clinically practice.”

Her knowledge of the poor conditions in Jordan led Soudi to Greece, where conditions in camps are being compared to those in Nazi concentration camps. According to Soudi, refugees who arrive at the border with the expectation of a better life are often crushed by the dismal reality they face. The refugees’ realization that they cannot reunite with their families and that they must live without reliable access to food, water and medical services is often debilitating. Disappointment coupled with the trauma of warfare at home can prove mentally devastating for refugees.

“For these people to [say], ‘We would much rather go back to Syria, because in Syria we were worried about dying every day, but in Greece we’re actually dying every day’ … exemplifies how bad it is in Greece right now,” Soudi said.

Because refugees are so psychologically vulnerable, the need for therapists and mental health programs in refugee camps is high. Soudi’s mental health assessment examines not only the mental health of refugees but also the programs in place at camps. The assessment concluded that the mental health services available fall far short of the refugees’ needs.

“There’s very limited access to mental health services, even though you see very high rates of depression and anxiety and PTSD, and if there are therapy programs … a lot of them aren’t actually culturally validated and sensitive,” said Soudi. “The therapy that is afforded in these situations isn’t necessarily the right therapy.”

In order to tackle the lack of access, Soudi is using her research to formulate a plan to create a sustainable model for mental health programs. As the cofounder of Mina, an organization dedicated to ensuring better mental health services to refugees in Jordan, Soudi plans to implement a program that will increase access to therapists for refugees.

Yet Soudi argues that providing better treatment is not enough. Any scheme to improve mental health in camps must involve efforts to inform people living in conflict zones about the real conditions in European refugee camps.

“Ultimately there needs to be a political change in which we continue to raise awareness about what the conditions are like,” Soudi said. “There’s this huge misconception that in Europe, conditions are good, that finally refugees escape the Middle East, which is perceived as a place where there’s no access to anything, and then they finally get to Europe, where ‘conditions are good’ … that’s not the case, it’s actually opposite.”

Soudi is also working with a group of Stanford faculty and staff members ranging from experts in political science to physicians to create a plan that will help Stanford get involved in alleviating conditions for refugees.

According to Michele Barry, Director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health, the group works to relocate refugees with the help of the Reed Smith law firm.

“It’s a two-year vetting process for a refugee to get into the country, and what we are doing and what the human rights law firm is doing is [finding] a psychiatric or medical reason for the refugee to be relocated [and] getting an expedited waiver,” Barry said.

In particular, Barry and Daryn Reicherter, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences in the medical school, helped to relocate a refugee child who was born with a severely deformed eye for emergency medical attention.

The large-scale effort involved the combined efforts of many agencies and individuals, including Stanford faculty and Stanford Hospital staff. The Center for Victims of Torture passed the case along to Reed Smith, who brought it to doctors working in Jordan for an initial assessment. Back in California, Christopher Dawes from Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford worked to find a hospital in Spain that was willing to care for the child. Lawyers from Reed Smith spent hours negotiating with governments and dealing with the legality of the move. Due to the culmination of these efforts, the family was finally relocated to Spain.

“I think we really do need to step it up here,” Soudi said. “We have an incredible wealth of resources and personnel and expertise, and I think that it’s a disservice to not apply that to the single worst humanitarian crisis of our time.”


Correction: A previous version of this article did not acknowledge several agencies who were involved in the relocation of the refugee baby. The Daily regrets this error.  A full list of individuals and organizations who collaborated in the relocation effort can be found in the linked letter to the editor. 

Contact Shilpa Sajja at 19sajja ‘at’

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