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Refugees try yoga to help combat PTSD, depression, and anxiety

After what is often years of waiting and paperwork, some refugees from desperate situations around the world are fortunate enough to be accepted into the U.S. But then what? If you’ve been in a war-torn area or are a victim of torture, you’re glad to be safe.

But you’re in a strange country. You might not speak English. You might be confused by government bureaucracy or an unfamiliar medical system. Then there’s a chance you’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or other mental health issues. 

Some refugees struggling with these issues might not even know it because they've never been diagnosed. They might not even be familiar with the concept of PTSD or depression. 


Dr. Arash Javanbakht, Director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic in Wayne State University’s department of psychology, and Mohammed Alsaud, a research assistant at the clinic, joined Stateside to share how they're helping to address these challenges.


Stateside's Sarah Leeson also went to one of the refugee therapy sessions at Hype Recreation Club in Dearborn to bring back an audio postcard.


Listen to the conversation and postcard above, or read highlights below.  


Alsaud said that the team has interviewed 125 families so far, which adds up to 486 individuals. 


"One-third of the adults screened positive for PTSD," Javanbakht said. "That's comparable to Vietnam War veterans' lifetime PTSD rate. Nearly 50 percent screened positive for depression and anxiety. … Nearly 60 percent of kids have high anxiety, and nearly 80 percent have separation anxiety, which makes it very difficult for a kid to want to separate from parents and go to school, go to explore, go to sleepovers, [or] go to parties." 


The researchers say there's still a stigma around receiving treatment and medication for these issues, and getting help can be further complicated by a lack of therapists who understand the language and culture of their home country. 


Hence the idea for a different kind of treatment. They launched a study to find out whether alternative methods might make a difference in the stress levels of refugees. There's "mindful yoga" sessions for moms, art and dance therapy for kids, and a variety of workouts for the dads. 


"It's basically a collaboration of many different parties: people from art school at the university, our department, [and] Samaritas which provides transportation for free for the refugees," Javanbakht said. 


So far, the effects they've seen in the refugees have been promising.  


"We have had a significant decline in the stress and anxiety among children," Javanbakht said. The adults have also had a chance at community building in their new homes. Many have new friendships, and some have even found jobs through relationships they've made during the study. 


Lana Grasser, a first-year graduate student at Wayne State University in the translational neuroscience program, is one of the program organizers. She said that the facility is perfect for the program since the space allows the families to practice mindfulness separately without straying too far.


"Everyone is close together," Grasser said. "The dads are off in the gym working out, the moms are pretty close to their kid, whether the kid is in the adjacent studio taking part in a dance movement class or over in the classroom right down the hall taking an art class. So, everyone is kind of nearby which provides a lot of comfort, especially for kids who aren't necessarily okay with separating from their parents."

Hype Recreation building in Dearborn, MI
Credit Sarah Leeson / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
"We love it here," Grasser said about the recreation center. She said it has everything the refugee families need to try out this new therapy style.

Not only is the venue well suited to the practice, but the choice therapy appears to be working out as well. 

Lisa Malinowski, a yoga instructor and mindfulness educator who led the women in the yoga session, said that yoga can be a particularly useful practice for analyzing our thought processes and breathing.

"Yoga and mindfulness is a practice, but it's a tool," Malinowski said. "I like to think of it as something you can bring to your everyday life. We have our breath every moment that we're living, or walking, or driving. So when we learn how to practice our breath and notice our breath, we become much more aware of how our body is feeling and we're able to regulate those emotions."

The sessions can also go beyond offering relaxation and therapy. They can be a chance for participants to get to know other families and learn more about American culture.

Noor Hammoud, a student at Wayne State and a translator for the movement therapy class, said that the changes she's seen in the kids from the start of the program until now are "immense." She says that the kids are not only happier, but better adjusted to life in their new country. 

"During the first week, the kids didn't know any English, so that's when my translating services were at an all-time high," Hammoud said. "They picked up a lot from our class though, so I rarely find myself having to translate for them anymore because they can communicate for themselves."

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
Sarah Leeson is a production assistant for Stateside and a University of Michigan grad. After spending four years studying communications, writing, and French, Sarah is happy to discuss anything concerning social networks, mass media, or crêpes. She also worked on the Michigan Daily as a columnist, contributing poignant stories about her own misadventures at home and abroad.
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