Syrian Refugees In the US: Impact of Exposure to War Trauma and Stress of Migration

Syrian Refugees In the US: Impact of Exposure to War Trauma and Stress of Migration

Arash Javanbakht, MD

Arash Javanbakht, MD

Member Since 2016

Arash Javanbakht, MD., is the director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC; https://www.starclab.org) at Wayne State University. Dr Javanbakht and his work have been featured on the National Geographic, The Atlantic, CNN, Aljazeera, NPR, Washington Post, Smithsonian, PBS, American Psychiatric Association, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and tens of other media. His clinical and research work is mainly focused on anxiety and trauma related disorders, and PTSD. He often helps civilians and first responders with PTSD. His clinic utilizes pharmacotherapy (medication), psychotherapy, exercise, and lifestyle modification to help patients achieve their full capacity for a fulfilling life. Several research studies at the STARC examine the impact of exposure to war trauma in adults and children Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and biological and psychological factors of risk and resilience, and use of art, dance and movement therapies in helping refugee families. STARC also works on utilization of augmented reality and telemedicine for vivo treatment for anxiety disorders and PTSD.

Dr. Javanbakht and ADAA

 “I was introduced to ADAA through my mentor Dr James Abelson, a longtime member, during my residency. The reason was my passion for research and also clinical work in anxiety and trauma.”

“I love the friendly environment and seeing the same nice faces each year. Also, the balanced combination of basic science and clinical research, and clinical expertise. As a clinician researcher, there are not a lot of venues where I could get such exposure to both my clinical and basic science research passions.”

“I love the ADAA annual meetings and look very much forward to them for the above reasons. I have met brilliant researchers and clinicians at the ADAA, and some have turned to great clinical and research collaborators, and good friends. I also check the website and webinars. Also, as I write for the media a lot, ADAA has kindly been sharing my work with those interested.”

“I recently received the news from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that an R01 application to follow a cohort of traumatized Syrian refugee children in the US and their parents, to examine the illness course, and its epigenetic, autonomic, and environmental correlates. Drs. Tanja Jovanovic, Nicole Nugent, Alicia Smith, and David Rosenberg are the great collaborators on this project. I have also been using augmented reality combined with telemedicine for treatment of phobias with great success in a pilot study of fear of spiders. This data was presented at the ADAA last year in a symposium. We are advancing to fear of dogs and humans. I also often write public education pieces for the media, which can be seen on my lab website, and ADAA generously shares those with the members. https://www.starclab.org/media."

Syrian Refugees In the US: Impact of Exposure to War Trauma and Stress of Migration

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Imagine one morning you wake up to a loud sound of explosion, and in disbelief find out the whole city is in chaos. There is no electricity, no tap water, grocery stores are closed indefinitely, and there is no gas for the car. Control of your neighborhood constantly transitions between different groups who may treat you differently based on your religion or ethnicity, and yourself and your family are under constant threat of torture, and injuries, or even loss of life. This is what happened in Syria.

Years of civil war in Syria has caused chronic exposure to adversity, lack of resources, losses, and extreme trauma in adults and children. Those who were resourceful and lucky enough, left their homes, memories, and loved ones -dead or alive- behind, and ended up in overcrowded camps with minimum resources. After an average of two years, some of them were told they will live in a new country, the US. 

After arriving in the US, they had to learn the language, the culture, and how things work here, which is often very different than Syria. On top of that, the political environment has not been very welcoming. 

Altogether, the whole journey and transition has been very stressful for the families, understandably so. Our team at the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC) at Wayne State University is the first in the US to look at the impact of exposure to war trauma and stress of migration on mental health of a large group of Syrian refugee adults and children. 

Within the first month of their arrival in the US, we found very high level of psychological distress: a third of men and women screen positive for PTSD, nearly half for high anxiety, and nearly half for depression. 80% of those with PTSD, also have depression. These are both disabling conditions that can gravely impact one’s ability to cope with the stress of migration, and impede integration into the new environment which requires significant amount of exploration and social interaction.

Half of the children had high level of anxiety, and nearly 80% separation anxiety. Not wanting to leave parents is an adaptive response when a child is exposed to extreme unsafe situations during war, but will limit their ability to go to school, and explore the new life environment as a refugee. Symptoms of children are linked with those of their mothers: the higher anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms severity in mothers, the higher the anxiety in their child.

We went to their houses and interviewed the families one year later: although there is a decline in anxiety and depression in some adults, without treatment, trauma symptoms seem to sustain over time. Severity of distress among both parents one year post arrival, is linked with changes in trauma symptoms in their children: the higher the parents’ distress, the less the improvement of trauma symptoms in their child. Also, parental environmental stress (housing, finances, social and governmental support, etc) negatively affects their child’s psychological distress. There is a lot to be done to protect the refugee families, and the children who will be future American adults, against the profound lifelong negative impact of trauma, depression and forced migration. To assure a productive, functional and well-assimilated future for them, we the citizens may have to take charge and make that decision, before it is too late.

Arash Javanbakht, MD

Arash Javanbakht, MD

Member Since 2016

Arash Javanbakht, MD., is the director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC; https://www.starclab.org) at Wayne State University. Dr Javanbakht and his work have been featured on the National Geographic, The Atlantic, CNN, Aljazeera, NPR, Washington Post, Smithsonian, PBS, American Psychiatric Association, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and tens of other media. His clinical and research work is mainly focused on anxiety and trauma related disorders, and PTSD. He often helps civilians and first responders with PTSD. His clinic utilizes pharmacotherapy (medication), psychotherapy, exercise, and lifestyle modification to help patients achieve their full capacity for a fulfilling life. Several research studies at the STARC examine the impact of exposure to war trauma in adults and children Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and biological and psychological factors of risk and resilience, and use of art, dance and movement therapies in helping refugee families. STARC also works on utilization of augmented reality and telemedicine for vivo treatment for anxiety disorders and PTSD.

Dr. Javanbakht and ADAA

 “I was introduced to ADAA through my mentor Dr James Abelson, a longtime member, during my residency. The reason was my passion for research and also clinical work in anxiety and trauma.”

“I love the friendly environment and seeing the same nice faces each year. Also, the balanced combination of basic science and clinical research, and clinical expertise. As a clinician researcher, there are not a lot of venues where I could get such exposure to both my clinical and basic science research passions.”

“I love the ADAA annual meetings and look very much forward to them for the above reasons. I have met brilliant researchers and clinicians at the ADAA, and some have turned to great clinical and research collaborators, and good friends. I also check the website and webinars. Also, as I write for the media a lot, ADAA has kindly been sharing my work with those interested.”

“I recently received the news from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that an R01 application to follow a cohort of traumatized Syrian refugee children in the US and their parents, to examine the illness course, and its epigenetic, autonomic, and environmental correlates. Drs. Tanja Jovanovic, Nicole Nugent, Alicia Smith, and David Rosenberg are the great collaborators on this project. I have also been using augmented reality combined with telemedicine for treatment of phobias with great success in a pilot study of fear of spiders. This data was presented at the ADAA last year in a symposium. We are advancing to fear of dogs and humans. I also often write public education pieces for the media, which can be seen on my lab website, and ADAA generously shares those with the members. https://www.starclab.org/media."

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