‘Mindfulness could improve trauma recovery with refugees’

In the run up to the 2017 Varela Awards we highlight the work of our 2016 awardees. Anna Reebs was one of the 6 young scientists that received a Varela Award. With her research into the mental healthcare and trauma recovery of refugees, she hopes to contribute to an emerging clinical psychological science of refugee mental health. ‘There is a huge global mental health crisis and I believe that research on trauma-related psychopathology in the refugee populations is much needed. Mindfulness may be a promising approach to improve mental health and trauma recovery amongst refugees’

Why did you decide to research mental health with refugees?
The ongoing refugee crisis results in personal and collective suffering of tens of millions of refugees exposed to unimaginable traumatic stress. Essentially, there is a huge global mental health crisis and I believe that research on trauma-related psychopathology in the refugee populations is much needed. Yet, there is only a limited body of experimental clinical research on refugee mental health to guide the implementation and the development of clinical interventions tailored to these populations. I hope my research contributes to an emerging clinical psychological science of refugee mental health.

Inspired to positively impact a global public health and human rights crisis with this work, I joined Dr. Amit Bernstein’s International Research Collaborative at the University of Haifa. Dr. Bernstein and his research team from the East-African refugee community residing in Israel have been working to connect clinical psychological science, contemplative science of mindfulness, and public mental health of forcibly displaced populations.

 Why do you think there might be a positive outcome for refugees using mindfulness?
Mindfulness may be a promising approach to improve mental health and trauma recovery amongst forcibly displaced populations. First, mindfulness training specifically targets key bio-psycho-behavioral processes thought to maintain psychopathology following traumatic stress such as behavioral avoidance, emotion dysregulation and attentional bias to trauma-related information.

Secondly, mindfulness-based interventions are also highly disseminable, transportable, low-cost, and may be delivered to large and diverse groups of refugees world-wide in contrast to many traditional intervention approaches (e.g. psychotherapy).

This combination of demonstrated efficacy, scientific plausibility (e.g. targets mechanisms known to maintain trauma-related psychopathology), and capacity for easy implementation makes mindfulness training a particularly promising intervention approach for refugees. Certainly, an intervention approach that merits rigorous study.

What challenges do you think you might encounter?
Recruitment and retention of refugee participants will likely be the key challenge. The personal commitment to attend weekly intervention sessions and to practice at home on a daily basis is a very large ask of this population in particular. Refugees in Israel live under very difficult socio-economic conditions, many have family members that are also displaced and may not be safe. These various stressors and life circumstances add to the painful history of trauma and loss that they struggle with on a daily basis. We work closely with members and leaders of the East-African refugee community in Israel as well as NGOs who are dedicated to serving the various needs of this population. The study and intervention will be highly structured and adapted socio-culturally. Ultimately, we hope that the benefits participants experience from the intervention will provide sufficient motivation to ensure their commitment to the intervention and to mindfulness practice.

Who will be your research population?
The research population will be East African refugees, primarily from Eritrea. They are survivors of violence and conflict and many have been subject to torture and human trafficking in their escape to Israel. We will have groups for women and men, separately, as part of our planned intervention study. Many thousands of Eritreans fled because of the oppressive rule. The NGO ‘Reporters Without Borders’ ranked Eritrea with the lowest score in terms of freedom of expression since 2007, even lower than North Korea. Our work with this population has revealed that they experienced unimaginable traumatic stress and, despite their remarkable resilience and will to cope and thrive, suffer from prevalent, chronic and sometimes severe symptoms of posttraumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

Where will you be conducting your research?
The research will be conducted in or near our satellite research facility, which is housed in the central bus station in South Tel Aviv. We work in the heart of the Israeli refugee community and in collaboration with NGOs working with refugees in Israel. In earlier studies, we found that this type of community-embedded data collection is essential to the pragmatics of conducting mental health research with refugees.

How will you get refugees to cooperate?
We have found, from studies in recent years, that that it is essential that our research team include a large number of members of the community, that we work closely with NGOs serving the refugee population in Israel, and that our research be embedded in the heart of the refugee community in Tel Aviv. Our work to date has also shown, also, that many refugees are highly motivated to participate in research dedicated to understanding and improving refugee mental health. Some see this type of participation as a meaningful way to give back to their community and to help create a more positive future for their friends and families.

What impact will your research have for advancing contemplative science and for making change in society?
My research will rigorously evaluate the potential for mindfulness training to reduce suffering and promote well-being of a tragically booming population of refugee survivors of traumatic stress.

To the best of my knowledge, no rigorous experimental clinical research has tested the effects of mindfulness training on the diverse fast-growing population of traumatized African refugees. In the proposed research, we will explore the effects and mechanisms of action of mindfulness training among the fast growing population of African refugees that are globally dispersed, under-studied and under-served. The research represents an emerging area of cross-cultural contemplative science – that tests important questions regarding the trans/cross-cultural universality of contemplative science and applies contemplative science to advance the well-being of many of the most vulnerable citizens of our world.

About the Varela Awards
‘The Varela award funds contemplative science research that is usually not eligible for mainstream funding. It helped me speed up my dissertation research. Due to the financial security it provides, I was able to finalize the design of my dissertation project and start preparing the data collection of the mindfulness intervention. Being part of the Varela Awards and the European Summer Research Institute has been great to meet people interested in contemplative science and to exchange ideas and perspectives.’ Anna Reebs, 2016 awardee

The Varela Awards fund rigorous examinations of contemplative techniques with the ultimate goal that findings derived from such investigations will provide greater insight into contemplative practices and their application for reducing human suffering and promoting flourishing. The Varela Awards are an essential feature of Mind and Life’s overall strategy of building an interdisciplinary understanding of the mind and human behavior. More information on The Mind & Life Francisco J. Varela Awards can be found on our website.


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