Archive for the 'effects of violence' Category

Cognitive processing therapy for rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Setting a new standard for post-conflict psychosocial care

Last week saw the publication of an important randomized control trial of cognitive processing therapy (CPT) for Congolese survivors of sexual assault in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM — and thanks, NEJM, for making the article available in full online). The fruit of intensive work by Judy Bass of Johns Hopkins, Jeannie Annan of the International Rescue Committee, Debra Kaysen of the University of Washington, and a host of others, this publication sets a new standard in the field of post-conflict mental health research and is welcome news for those affected by rape and other forms of sexual assault in low and middle-income (or, “LMIC”) war-affected settings.

The study involved almost 500 female survivors of rape in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an area of the world infamous for the absence of state control and an ongoing epidemic of sexual violence. Half were randomly assigned to a group-based version of CPT led by trained local counselors, half to generalized, patient-directed individual support and case management. Those attending CPT improved far more than those in the control group (although the latter also improved somewhat).

CPT has been shown to be effective for sexual assault survivors in several Northern, high-income countries, so that it was effective in the DRC may seem unsurprising. However, debates have raged in the past decade or so about the efficacy and effectiveness of doing psychotherapy in post-conflict settings that are not technically “post”-conflict and in populations with low-levels of education.

Prior research has suggested that short-term therapies may not be effective for populations exposed to ongoing trauma or multiple severe traumas. In our study, all villages reported at least one major security incident during the trial, including attacks, displacement due to fighting, and robbery by armed groups. In addition, there was concern that providing therapy to illiterate persons would be challenging. Our findings suggest that despite illiteracy and ongoing conflict, this evidence-based treatment can be appropriately implemented and effective.

This study shows that, with sufficient technical support, psychotherapy targeting trauma-related emotional problems can be delivered effectively in violence-affected LMICs as part of comprehensive psychosocial programs.

For a brief summary of the study and some commentary, see the related New York Times article from last Wednesday.

More evidence that measuring local concepts of distress matters

The latest issue of Psychological Assessment includes an article by University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral research fellow (and soon to be Manhattan College Assistant Professor) Nuwan Jayawickreme that provides support for the use of locally developed distress measures in post-disaster settings that are beyond the cultural boundaries of Western psychology’s usually realm. Are Culturally Specific Measures of Trauma-Related Anxiety and Depression Needed? The Case of Sri Lanka provides empirical evidence suggesting that once locally-developed measures of posttraumatic distress are administered, administering measures of PTSD and depression (as defined by DSM-IV) does not provide any more useful information vis-a-vis an individual’s impairment of day-to-day functioning.

Developing psychological distress measures in non-Western disaster zones has been on the agenda of many in the disaster mental health field for over a decade now. The essential problem is that conceptualizations of mental health problems and the way that different people from different cultures express their distress vary widely. So, when mental health professionals need to assess individuals to see if they need treatment, they need a measure (questionnaire, survey, or some other standard measurement tool) that is sensitive to that population. How  are such tools to be developed? Jayawickreme explains:

Identifying such idioms first need to use ethnographic methods to understand how the social world interacts with the individual’s physical and psychological processes. Such ethnographic studies usually involve an in-depth examination of a specific culture’s conceptualization of a particular experience. Once the concepts and the idioms used by the community in question have been identified, questionnaires or inventories can be developed to assess these concepts, which are then validated using iterative statistical and field testing methods

And that’s what he did. And then he administered this measure, called the Penn/RESIST/Peradeniya War Problems Questionnaire (PRP-WPQ), the PTSD Symptom Scale (or PSS, a standard PTSD scale developed by trauma treatment luminary — and Jayawickreme advisor — Edna Foa) and the Beck Depression Inventory (the BDI, a standard measure of depression) to 197 Tamil Sri Lankans living in the war torn northern and eastern parts of the island. And then he looked at the incremental ability of the PTSD Symptom Scale and the Beck Depression Inventory to predict a measure of functional impairment.

Jayawickreme’s regression analysis showed what some of us have been talking about (and even publishing empirical results on) for a while now: Using measures of psychological distress with local populations that incorporate terms that they can understand is better at getting at the functional impairment due to this distress than using DSM-IV based measures.

The current findings provide support for the notion that sensitive measurement of  psychopathology in non-Western, war affected populations may require the development of instruments that incorporate local idioms of distress. As noted earlier, there are limited resources available for providers of psychosocial aid in non-Western, war-affected countries. Given the considerable needs of such populations, it may seem inappropriate to engage in what appears to be a costly and complicated process to develop measures incorporating local idioms of distress. The current results do indicate that the PSS and the BDI predict functional impairment to a substantial degree. However, the current results also suggest that measures incorporating idioms of distress may improve our ability over and above the established measures to identify those who are functionally impaired because of mental illness and who therefore need assistance.

The HESPER: WHO’s measurement answer to the problem of identifying needs within displaced populations

The World Health Organization recently released the Humanitarian Emergency Settings Perceived Needs Scale (HESPER), a measure that they hope will operationalize the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings and encourage rapid assessment of perceived needs in disaster settings. Longtime disaster mental health and psychosocial researcher Mark van Ommeren was the lead on the project, which means that it was developed with the highest level of rigor given the needs, which include some flexibility. A large advisory group that reads (with a few exceptions) like a who’s who of international disaster mental health and psychosocial intervention provided regular input, and the HESPER was tested in sites as various as Sudan, the UK, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Haiti and Nepal. Overall the psychometrics reported look good, particularly given the diversity of locations. There are sections on individual needs and community-level needs on a surprising number of domains, a welcome relief from the unidimensional individual-level norms.

What may be the best thing about the HESPER guide is the presentation. Van Ommeren and company have provided not only the measure and the methods used for development of the measure, but also sections on training local administrators, appropriate sampling, a mock interview transcript that reads true, and even a section on how to present HESPER findings to organizations. Too often I have seen an disaster relief NGO get a measure that may be valid or may not, administer it haphazardly, and then be unsure of how to meaningfully present findings. In addition, there’s an “Other things to consider” section which includes the things that you don’t usually think about but are blatantly obvious on the ground — the dilemma of raised expectations that often come about just by asking about problems, for instance.

And then there’s this:


The HESPER Scale may be used by anybody in its current form for non-commercial purposes. Should you wish to make any modifications to the scale, or translate the scale into another language, you will need to get permission from WHO Press (for contact details, see inside cover page). Currently the HESPER Scale (i.e. Appendix 1 only) is available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Nepali, and French / Haitian Creole. Word files of the different HESPER Scale language versions are available upon request.

The WHO provides their measures for free and welcomes further development of these types of rapid assessments.

Psychosocial support in Libya: What it looks like in the first weeks of a crisis

Although barely a few weeks old, the crisis in Libya has already set the NGO world’s psychosocial intervention machine in motion. Appeals and updates from UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and Handicap International from last week have put psychosocial support up front and center (along with clean water, food, and shelter) in operations in Tunisia and Egypt and even in western (i.e., opposition-controlled) Libya designed to aid people fleeing the fighting. So just what does this psychosocial support entail?

Well, at this point there isn’t much in the way of specificity given surrounding psychosocial support. The UNICEF appeal lumps them together with “family tracing and reunification,” a critical service aimed at connecting family members who have been lost in the flight from danger. The appeal adds that “UNICEF will provide booklets for psychosocial support” and “recreation kits.” The IFRC notes that in addition to the target population, staff and volunteers will be provided with psychosocial support as well — this sounds good, but tells us little beyond the (important) fact that the IFRC is aware that burnout is a threat to people who work with displaced populations.

Another IFRC update (from March 4th, 2011), this one detailing the Libyan Red Crescent’s work, is more specific:

Volunteers are providing psychosocial support to help people overcome the difficult and desperate situation they have suddenly found themselves in. They have enabled people to make phone calls to their families and loved ones, and assisted them with travel arrangements within and outside Libya, including transport to the Libyan border, the transfer of belongings, and the facilitation of travel procedures with the authorities.

So here we have the elements of “psychosocial,” at least in the first stages of a refugee crisis: maintaining family networks and facilitating orderly travel so that the events that led to displacement do not lead to the disintegration of the supportive social structures that allow human beings to cope effectively with their situations. This emphasis on the social bonds, the social networks that are so easily damaged during wartime, is the essence of psychosocial.

PS: UNICEF makes special mention of relying on regional teams, noting that the country offices in Egypt and Tunisia “have solid expertise around child protection and psycho-social support.” Kudos for UNICEF for being explicit about going local.

Stressors, more stressors, and blaming the victim in wartime

Those people who dedicate their lives to addressing stressors among displaced populations are frequently faced with an uncomfortable truth: people under a lot of stress sometimes create more problems for themselves. This is a well-observed phenomenon across populations, and is generally known as “stress generation.” As regards trauma work, there is good research to show that the best predictor of future trauma is past trauma. For those of you not well-versed in stress generation, see Constance Hammen’s reflection on her career researching stress generation among depressed individuals in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

The uncomfortable part of all this is that it can move quickly into “blaming the victim” (particularly as it pertains to trauma). If a combat veteran presents with PTSD and marital conflict due to the irritability and anger that is a part of the PTSD diagnosis, it can be very difficult not to get really frustrated with that vet’s anger and sink into “it’s your own damn fault” despite our initial sympathy. An automobile accident survivor has a higher likelihood of getting into another automobile accident than someone who hasn’t been in an automobile accident because the survivors tend to be extra cautious following their first accident, drive more slowly at the wrong times, get distracted by other drivers, etc.; if these things cause an accident, who is responsible?

When it comes to refugees, blaming the victim may result in less critical aid from the international community and stigma upon resettlement. And yet it’s clear to anyone who’s worked in refugee camps that a stressed population is a difficult population is difficult to work with. Indeed, one of the impetuses behind bringing psychosocial interventions into humanitarian aid is the danger that stressed refugees can pose to aid workers. There are numerous reports of refugees striking out against aid workers for small irregularities in aid distribution or changes in policies. (I should add that their are also striking reports of other refugees coming to the aid of aid workers.)

So how do we reconcile stress generation with our discomfort? Well, first by reminding ourselves that the first order of health provision is not morality. (I’ve harped on that before, and you probably don’t need to read it again here.)

Second, by looking further into stress generation research so we know what we’re talking about. In this literature, folks like Hammen make the distinction between “dependent, interpersonal” stressors and “independent, fateful” stressors. It turns out that research with people with mental health diagnoses have (on average) more stress-dependent events than people without mental health diagnoses, but have the same number of independent events. Dependent events are almost uniformly interpersonal in nature — and therefore plausibly related to how one would act towards others if really stressed. Independent events may be interpersonal, but their core feature is their fateful nature — they are not affected by how someone is acting.

How does the dependent-independent dichotomy map on to the typology of conflict-related stressors proposed in the last entry in this blog? Well, it’s pretty clear that mental health problems aren’t to blame for people being attacked or cause them to end up in unstable resettlement contexts — this is the “direct war exposure potentially traumatic events (PTEs)” category. For “collateral” and “other PTEs” (which, as I think through them may not be as distinguishable as they first seemed), the picture is less clear, and that some of these stressors are related to “being stressed” means that education campaigns surrounding the affects of stress (at the very least) are important. “Social ecological stressors” are clearly set off by displacement, but the breakdown of community institutions may be exacerbated by interpersonal problems. This is why the “social” in “psychosocial intervention” has always struck me as the more important of the two traditions. “Daily hassles” are likewise split between those problems that are outside of the control of the individual (e.g., a military checkpoint) and those that are exacerbated (unemotional reactions to hearing of abuse of loved ones). So perhaps the dependent-independent dichotomy is a second axis that runs through the typology proposed a few days ago. (Again, comments encouraged here.)

Important to remember through all of this is that all of these stressors are precipitated by an initial event — the event that was the cause of displacement. It would be difficult to argue that displacement events were dependent stressors. And yet many subsequent stressors, be they mild or traumatic, are dependent to some degree. In order to address these, humanitarian aid workers must remember the latter, and the former; they are equally important.

Article addendum: Stressors during wartime

The April 2010 issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry includes an article comparing the effects of war-related trauma on mental health to effects of the “current stressors” one finds in refugee camps. I’m the first author on this article, and so I’m going to take the privileges afforded by that role and be somewhat critical of the work here.

The article is based around the idea that there are lots of things that happen during wartime that cause emotional and cognitive distress in addition to armed conflict. In order to decide what to do about distress in displacement camps, one should consider these non-conflict stressors. In the paper, we measured war-related traumas (or “potentially traumatic events” to be more precise) separate from other “camp stressors” and examined which was more highly associated with the psychological problems of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and two local idioms of distress (local ways of discussing emotional problems). We found that war trauma and camp stressors among Darfur refugees were both related to all four psychological problems, and in several cases the number of camp stressors was actually more strongly associated with these than the number of war traumas. We went on to find that camp stressors partially mediated the effects of war trauma on most psychological problems. We concluded that humanitarian aid agencies interested in addressing general distress in camps thus had empirical support for interventions that target everyday camp stressors, in addition to popular war-related and trauma-focused interventions (which are already empirically-supported for displaced persons with posttraumatic distress).

Since the manuscript was accepted (fall of 2009) I have had a number of opportunities to think about the variability within this category of “current stressors.” Critical to this was the opportunity to co-author an editorial on trauma-focused versus psychosocial perspectives in humanitarian aid with my friend and sometimes collaborator Ken Miller, who is really the pioneer in this work (look up his stuff on Afghanistan and Sri Lanka for examples). Something has always bothered me about the category “current stressors” and a common criticism is that we are throwing a lot of different types of stressors — with different effects — into the same conceptual bag. So, I’d like to propose — really by way of proposing a starting point, not answering the problem outright — a typology of stressors that are critical to consider in studying the psychological consequences of armed conflict and displacement.

1. Direct war exposure potentially traumatic events (PTEs): Direct (both personally experienced and witnessed) exposure to the violence and destruction of war. Examples include (but are in no way limited to) direct attacks by military (or paramilitary) personnel, being pursued by these forces, bombing, and exposure to mines.

2. Collateral PTEs: Direct exposure to trauma collateral to war (i.e., coming about because of war) but not comprising an act of war itself. This may include abuse by non-military persons during flight (e.g., criminals or fellow refugees), attacks by locals in the displacement context, abuse by peacekeeping forces, and motor vehicle accidents occurring during flight.

3. Other PTEs: Non-war-related traumatic events that increase during wartime. It has been noted that all forms of violence increase during wartime (e.g., see the work of James Garbarino for particularly articulate illustrations), whether because of stress on the perpetrators of these events or degraded safety of settings which allow these events to occur more frequently. Examples include domestic violence, child abuse, and attacks by dangerous animals (e.g., poisonous snakes are evidently a big problem in some refugee camps in Sri Lanka).

4. Social ecological stressors: War-related degradation of social institutions (both formal and informal). Examples are destruction of schools and subsequent lack of educational opportunity, diminished health care, loss of social support networks, religious institutions, war-induced poverty, and famine. It may be difficult to distinguish some of these from preexisting conditions (e.g., the difference between war-induced and preexisting poverty may be minimal in some cases).

5. Daily hassles: Daily hassles are those seemingly minor problems of daily life that either come to exist or increase in intensity in wartime. These have shown to be strongly related to mental health problems in non-war contexts, even moreso than stressful major life events. These may include checkpoints along a commute, regular questioning by military or police, mild forms of humiliation (e.g., degradation by authorities, bribes), needing multiple forms of documentation in order to complete simple tasks, long wait times in order to get basic resources (e.g., food distribution at refugee camps), and hearing complaints about such daily hassles from loved ones. All involve some persistent inconvenience or stressor that is not physically abusive or threatening. Some daily hassles may at times come close to collateral trauma (e.g., regular questioning that involves strip searches).

It is important to note that for individuals exposed to the different types of stressors delineated above, differences may seem phenomenologically trivial. Stressors related to direct attacks, harassment and abuse during flight, and loss of social networks may be part and parcel of a single, undelineated narrative of war. Moreover, for many these categories may not be readily distinguishable from non-war-related stressors. War-induced poverty may be seen as an extension of preexisting poverty, increases in domestic abuse may be experienced as an extension of pre-war abusive relationships, and bribes paid to police during wartime may have the same effect as bribes during peacetime. In order to study the effect of conflict, researchers should conduct work that estimates the change in prevalence, incidence, and effect on outcomes of these phenomena over time (i.e., pre-conflict to conflict).

Let me reiterate that these are only a first pass at types of stressors, and I welcome all comments. Next: The sticky problem of stress generation among displaced populations.

Richer refugees living in cities? A review of refugee trends presented in the Lancet

The Lancet’s special issue on Violent Conflict and Health (featured in the last three posts in this blog) includes required reading for refugee professionals examining trends in health-care needs among conflict-affected populations. The article, “Health-care needs of people affected by conflict: Future trend and changing frameworks,” is a collaborative effort between researchers at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the International Rescue Commission.

Recent trends include an increase in internally-displaced persons and a decrease in refugees — essentially due to an increase in intrastate conflicts. The concept of refugees fleeing across borders to escape wars between armies is old hat. Much more likely now is the armed conflict that happens within regions of countries, leading primarily to internal displacement. The best example of this is in a nation not often thought of in the refugee cannon. Currently, this country in home to the largest displaced population in the world… Give up? Colombia.

Two trends cited by the paper are worth thinking about a little bit: (1) the urbanization of refugees and (2) higher baseline development index of refugees’ countries of origin.

The urbanization of refugees refers to those people who flee their country and settle in cities rather than in refugee camps. You can think of Somalis in Nairobi (Kenya) and  Zimbabweans in Johannesburg (South Africa). Here’s a chart from the article showing the trend in the growth of urban refugees, 1996-2008. The aqua bar at the bottom is the number of refugees in camps, the next bar (is that khaki?) is the urban population, and the olive bar is the number in rural areas.

Where Refugees Live

Note the jump in the middle bar between 2005 and 2006 on to 2007. What major refugee crisis was coming to head these years? Well, the second largest refugee population in the world (1.9 million last I checked) was from Iraq, and many many many of those are in Damascus, Syria, and Amman, Jordan. So, the urbanization of refugees is certainly a trend in terms of numbers, but this chart doesn’t really tell us much beyond the fact that the Iraq War resulted in a large urban refugee population in neighboring countries. As Iraqis return home (as many have been doing for a year or so now) we shall see whether the urbanization trend is as strong as this article contends.

My guess is that urbanization of refugees is increasing, but that if you removed Iraqi refugees from these data, urbanization would be increasing at a lot slower rate than it appears here (perhaps at the rate urbanization is increasing in general). In any case increasing urbanization of refugees means that aid groups need to shift their strategies for needs assessment and service delivery; a group of refugees that is living dispersed throughout a city is much harder to find and help than a group living enclosed within the well-defined confines of a camp.

Contrast this with the trend examining the increasing baseline development index of refugee “sending countries” (i.e., the socioeconomic status of places where refugees flee has been increasing over time). Here the authors used the “human development index,” or HDI, presented in the chart below. The blue bar indicates refugees from “low human development” countries, the khaki from “medium and high development” countries.

HDI of Refugee Sending Countries

Here too we should think about how Iraq fits into this trend, as Iraq was a relatively well-developed country until recently. Note the general annual decrease of the blue bars from 1993 to 2008; here it looks like there was a trend before the emergence of the Iraqi refugee crisis, and so these data seem to present a more reliable trend than urbanization.

Note here that the HDI is a measure of countries, not people. This matters becasue it’s often the poorest who become refugees. For instance, Sudan has a moderate HDI (lots of oil, decent roads in the north), so the destitute farming refugees from Darfur or the rural cattle herders from the South would be evidence of this trend. It’s not the case that refugees are getting richer, only that the nations they flee from are richer. Indeed, there may be evidence in there somewhere for the hypothesis that an increasing income gap between richer and poorer is an important predictor in modern refugee-producing conflicts.

April 2017
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