Muhammad Haaris Zeb
Supporting Health Care Provider’s Culturally Appropriate Assessment and Response to Mental Health Challenges in Afghanistan Refugee Populations in Vermont
Mental health and suicide are difficult topics for many people, but in certain cultures, these subjects are taboo. Within many central Asian cultures, talking about one’s suicidal feelings is frowned upon, so individuals who need help typically hide their feelings.
Muhammad Zeb understands this well. His uncle passed away from suicide last summer, and his family, who are Pakistani, avoided talking about what happened. “It was a big lesson for me. This is a problem that can happen to anyone, and we must not push it under the rug,’” Zeb said.
At UVM, Zeb has an opportunity to examine this issue and make a difference for Afghan refugees. An increasing number of individuals forced to flee their homelands are resettling their lives in Vermont and, in the past two years, waves of Afghani refugees emigrated to the Burlington region. Post-traumatic stress, social isolation, racism, unemployment, and language barriers elevate refugees’ risk for depression and suicidal ideation. Their cultural-based reluctance to talk about these feelings, however, makes it difficult for health care providers to respond.
“A lot of refugees aren’t literate, so existing screening methods done in the primary care office are useless,” Zeb said. “The language on screening forms may not be familiar, or the patient may be scared to check boxes because they fear it creates an issue for their staying in the U.S.” Afghani and Pakistani cultures parallel, and Zeb is well-positioned to support Vermont health care providers in understanding Afghani patients’ fears.
For his project, Zeb developed an educational resource for health care providers who work with Afghan refugees. He began by assessing gaps in mental health resources and identifying cultural barriers among Afghanistan refugees, via literature reviews and interviews with experts in the field of refugee care. With this information, Zeb designed an interactive, web-based, educational module to serve as an introduction to mental health and intentional self-harm for providers working with Afghan refugees. The resource aims to assist providers who are unfamiliar with Afghan cultural norms to promote culturally appropriate care.
After testing the effectiveness of the module with health care providers and community representatives who engage with refugee populations in health care settings, Zeb will incorporate feedback to produce a final version of the module.
Zeb's project received funding support from the Four Pines Fellowship in Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention.