ITU researchers receive funding to create digital mental healthcare platform for Syrian refugees
The Novo Nordisk Foundation is financing a one-year project aiding healthcare workers and Syrian refugees in Jordan to the tune of two million kroner. The project is spearheaded by Associate Professor Lars Rune Christensen and PhD fellow Hasib Ahsan who have previously worked on digital healthcare screening of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The war in Syria has claimed upwards of 500,000 casualties and sent millions of people fleeing their homes. Many have sought safety and shelter in neighbouring Jordan which, according to the UN Refugee Agency, is currently housing 664,414 Syrian refugees. The actual figure, sources claim, may be as high as 1.3 million.
The majority of refugees in Jordan live in camps one of which is the Zaatari camp housing close to 80,000 Syrians. Scarred by the atrocities of war, many refugees in the camp are severely traumatised and suffer from mental illness. It is, however, exceedingly difficult for the healthcare workers at the camp to properly treat the refugees in need of help because mental illness is much harder to identify than a broken bone.
Digital screening application
Over the course of the coming year, a team of researchers led by Associate Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen Lars Rune Christensen will develop a digital mental healthcare platform intended for use in the Jordanian refugee camps. Their hope is to provide Syrian refugees with the help they so desperately need. The application is a so-called mHealth (Mobile Health) based on the WHO’s Self-Reporting Questionnaire-20 (SRQ-20). The SRQ-20 contains 20 questions designed to evaluate physical and mental health in a patient inquiring about their current emotional state, suicidal ideation, and physical symptoms. Results from the questionnaire are then evaluated and used as basis for referrals to healthcare specialists who use the mHealth app in their practice.
- We will be working closely with JHASi, a local non-profit health aid society, in creating a digital platform with which we in the first year alone expect to screen 15,000 refugees in Jordan for mental health issues. The primary goal is to provide refugees with the treatment they might otherwise not have received. Looking at the bigger picture, we can use the screening data to document the enormous need for mental healthcare among refugees in general, says Lars Rune Christensen.
By the end of the one-year project period, JHASi will resume responsibility of the digital platform and ensure that it continues to benefit the refugees in Jordan. To PhD fellow Hasib Ahsan the success of the project depends on its success as a practical application:
- It is important that our efforts and research in digital healthcare can be of practical use to our project collaborators after the initial project period has run its course. It is very important to create a lasting positive contribution in the region in addition to gaining valuable insights through our research, he says.
Success in Bangladesh
Lars Rune Christensen and Hasib Ahsan have previously developed digital healthcare tools aimed at improving the lives of refugees. Since 2017, they have developed, tested, and integrated applications into healthcare initiatives in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh where more the 600,000 people have sought refuge from persecution and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. In the camp, they were able to determine that according to WHO’s screening results 20.1 percent of the refugees were potentially in need of treatment.
Millions could benefit
Funding for the projects in Bangladesh also came from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, and Lars Rune Christensen and Hasib Ahsan er grateful that the foundation is now providing them the opportunity to continue their work in refugee camps in Jordan where differences in the healthcare system and the attitudes towards healthcare provide new challenges. In the long run, it is Lars Rune Christensen’s hope that the mHealth application can be implemented in even more of the world’s conflict zones where people flee the threat of war and violence.
- We know that there are almost 80 million refugees world-wide. There are many different experiences of war and violence. Some refugees have been subject to sexual abuse; others have seen family members killed. It goes without saying that experiences like that need treatment, but relief aid is typically focused on tangible issues like providing food and shelter and treating physical wounds and illnesses. We hope that with our research we can help shine a light on the mental suffering many refugees experience and hopefully contribute with a solution to the problem that can inspire others, says Lars Rune Christensen.
Read more about mHealth in Bangladesh