Posts Tagged 'humanitarian aid'

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.

Refugees, 2013: Changing faces, changing places, changing policies

This week’s Economist has a fine summary of how refugees have grown in number and diversity, and the international community’s response to these changes. Among things to note is the continuing trend observed a few years ago in a JAMA commentary (and critiqued by a skeptic or two… oops) of urban resettlement, which UNHCR now says it prefers to people resettling in refugee camps. UNHCR is also more explicit about its policy encouraging local political integration and even economic development as solutions in long-term refugee crises. These efforts are mirrored by changes in policies of countries who receive the most refugees (overwhelmingly in the developing world).

David Apollo Kazungu, Uganda’s Commissioner for Refugees, says it no longer makes sense to treat refugees as a humanitarian issue. “Those who stay for years throw up developmental problems for us, such as how to find enough land, water and jobs for everyone,” he argues. Uganda has already tried to improve the lot for the nearly 200,000 refugees it hosts by placing them in settlements rather than camps, and by giving them land to farm.

Within this discussion is the acknowledgement that forced migration and voluntary (or economic) migration are not entirely separate phenomena. Read the entire article here.

Sandy IDPs & some good mental health information for New York & New Jersey

If you have paid attention to any news from the Northeast U.S. in last couple weeks, you know that here in New York and across the river in New Jersey many people are hurting in the wake of the “superstorm” Sandy. According to the New York Times, there are an estimated 10,000-40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in New York City alone. In response to the massive loss and devastation along the waterfront, there have been many heartwarming displays of care by neighbors, friends, and even complete strangers. And in contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, local government and even the Feds seem to have their act together in providing supplies and now housing to those displaced.

IDP issues may, however, become a long-term issue. The sudden loss of material goods and social connections that people have based on where and how they live can have long-term consequences for social capital, employment opportunities, and even just knowing how to complete everyday tasks (e.g., where to get healthy food for your kids). The outpouring of support needs to be transformed into long-term engagement with IDPs, along the lines of the better psychosocial programs undertaken in more severe IDP crises (e.g., in Medellín, Colombia).

In the meantime, there has been a little attention to mental health. The best I have seen so far has been a post by “The 2×2 Project,” a blog written by Dr. Lloyd Sederer out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. (A thank you to my wife, who forwarded me the link.) Here’s the intro, which sums up and corrects the myths that are often hears in immediate post-disaster environments:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, opinions—some reliable, some misleading— about the storm’s potential mental health impact have proliferated. When media channels act responsibly they engage experienced experts as spokespeople; when that does not happen, wrong information adds to the public’s anxiety and can foster inappropriate clinical interventions and waste resources.

In the latter category, perhaps the greatest myths I have heard are:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can appear in the immediate wake of a disaster.

Watching television can cause PTSD.

The highly common psychic distress in the wake of a disaster is a mental illness.

Here are some facts:

Psychic distress after a disaster, which can be highly prevalent and last up to a month, generally is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

Read the rest of the post (and check out other informative posts) here.

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.

Article supplement: Posttraumatic idioms of distress among Darfur refugees

The September 2011 issue of Transcultural Psychiatry is out, and it includes an article by myself and some colleagues based on some work we did with Darfur refugees a few years ago. Publication lag times as they are (a colleague this morning compared them to the aging of fine wines), by the time an article is finally comes out in print the author’s ideas about what he/she sees as the “take-home” message may have shifted slightly. So here’s my chance to provide the 2011 take-home to a study written in 2009.

The article, Posttraumatic idioms of distress among Darfur refugees: Hozun and Majnun, details the development of a questionnaire (a structured interview, really) for Darfur refugees that we used to help evaluate a psychosocial intervention in camps in Chad. From the article:

We took an emic-etic integrated approach, identifying local constructs and then measuring both Western and local distress constructs within the same population in order to compare associations between two sets of symptoms of theoretically related concepts.

This means we (1) talked to a lot of refugees to hear how they defined their problems (including symptoms of psychological distress) and then followed-up with traditional healers to hear how they categorized these symptoms into larger psychological problems (“idioms of distress” for you budding transcultural psychiatrists out there); and (2) conducted a survey that included these problems and Western concepts (PTSD, depression) to measure how the Darfur problems and Western concepts were differentially associated with trauma experiences, loss, and impairment in daily living. The two Darfur problem sets were labeled hozun — “deep sadness” — and majnun — “madness.”

I’ll let you read the article to get the details, but suffice it to say that these sets of disorders — hozun and majnun on the one hand and PTSD and depression on the other — shared many symptoms in common. Related to this, they were associated with traumatic events and functional impairment at comparable levels — in other words, one could “predict” functional impairment using hozun and PTSD and get similar effect sizes (with slight favor for the locally-defined problems).

One might think that if a measure of PTSD is as good as measure developed for a local distress idiom in predicting a third variable you are interested in, then there is really no reason to develop the local measure. In the article we emphasized that the response to this argument had to do with respecting local populations and avoiding psychiatric colonialism. Now although I agree with those ideals, I would emphasize another point we made (but did not emphasize): Just because many of the symptoms of two different disorders from the Western psychiatric canon (here PTSD and depression) overlap with two different disorders from a different medical tradition (here hozun and majnun), it is how the symptoms are arranged in their respective traditions that define the disorders. From the article:

although they accounted for similar variance in Study 2 as a set of items, these symptoms were categorized by traditional healers into sets that were different that the sets of symptoms in PTSD and depression. This, then, suggests that it would be incorrect to argue that PTSD and depression are culturally valid constructs in settings in which respondents report variance on PTSD and depression simply because of that variance.

In other words, just because non-Western participants in a study answer that they have problems (or do not have problems) that fit into Western DSM-IV ideas of psychiatric disorder does not mean that Western DSM-IV ideas of psychiatric disorders are valid definitions of their problems. Figuring out what are valid definitions for their problems is not, at its most basic, a statistical task, but rather a theoretical one. You have to talk to the people who know the theory, not just the people who have the problems.


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.

Philip Gourevitch’s critique of humanitarian intervention

A must read for anyone involved in, interested in, or even heard of humanitarian interventions in warzones: Philip Gourevitch’s critique of humanitarian aid in the New Yorker. Ostensibly a review of Linda Polman’s new book, “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?”, Gourevitch argues that most instances of humanitarian intervention in conflict zones has probably resulted in prolonging conflicts, and that in some cases it may be that conflicts were made more severe in order to attract humanitarian interventions. Gourevitch know of what he speaks; he is the author of several critically-acclaimed books on human rights issues — Rwanda, the US record of torture, among others.

The whole piece is worth a careful read. But the argument is summed up best by a quote from Polman’s interview with a former leader of the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.), the ruthless rebel force in Sierra Leone’s war in the 1990s:

In the end, he claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special “cut-hands gangs” to lop off civilian limbs. “It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate,” he said. “Without the amputee factor, you people would never come.”

Now whether this former warlord is a credible historian is somewhat beside the point — because he’s right.

April 2017
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