Syrian Psychiatrist In The U.S. Uses Online Platform To Help Mental Health Workers

Mar 8, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 8:24 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump's administration is about to stop Syrians from entering the United States. Some, of course, are already here. And NPR's Deborah Amos has the story of what one of them does.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Dr. Hussam Jefee-Bahloul lives in two worlds. In one, he's a successful immigrant, an assistant professor at the medical school at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester. His specialty - addiction psychiatry. He treats Americans caught up in this country's opioid addiction crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: This is his other world, rooted in a longing for Syria, before-the-war Syria. It's in the music and the food served for a community of Syrian friends in a comfortable apartment outside of Boston.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Oh.

AMOS: Syria was still intact when he arrived here in 2009 for a medical residency in psychiatry. His distance from home weighs heavily now that his country is engulfed in a destructive war.

HUSSAM JEFEE-BAHLOUL: It's really hard. I mean, we - all of us Syrians everywhere, we have we lost our country basically. You know, Syria is no longer the Syria that we all knew. So to be able to deal with this loss is a daily struggle.

AMOS: Part of his struggle - how to use his mental health expertise to help Syrians traumatized by years of violence and displacement in 2014, he launched the Syrian Telemental Health Network. It's an online platform to help Syrian mental health workers in Syria and in clinics around the region to get training and connected to specialists around the world.

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: I think I'm doing this because I'm a Syrian. And it's really my way of coping.

AMOS: Coping for him, critical for field workers overwhelmed by a mental health emergency. Jefee-Bahloul's web network links them with volunteers, more than a dozen Syrian psychiatrists in the U.S., in the U.K. and Canada. They can get the best professional backup for the worst cases.

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: For every mental health provider in our network, there is a specialist who is holding their hands kind of, you know, through difficult cases and kind of help them, train them.

AMOS: But trained psychiatrists are in short supply on the ground. Even before the war, there was only a handful in Syria.

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: The whole country, 72. And right now, you can barely count them, you know, on your fingers. But that's...

AMOS: Can we look at the video?

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: Yeah. We can. We can. Let me see...

AMOS: So Jefee-Bahloul offers basic training, a kind of mental health first aid for field workers who have no medical degrees or clinical training.

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JEFEE-BAHLOUL: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: This one is a role-playing exercise to show how to interact with patients in distress. Dr. Jefee-Bahloul in Massachusetts is on a video call with field workers in a clinic near the Syrian border in southern Turkey. The session is subtitled in English so I can follow this training scenario based on real cases. A woman has come into the clinic for help.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: So she says, "I feel the world is closing in on me. I have five kids - three sons and two daughters."

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: Their father is disabled.

AMOS: Two of her sons are dead?

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: Yep.

AMOS: Those are horrific things. She has two dead sons. Her husband's disabled. And she lives in a warehouse.

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: Yep.

AMOS: How do you counsel somebody with those kinds of problems?

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: I mean, the most important thing is to be able to listen to people. Most of these people, they don't have anyone to talk to. They need to tell their stories.

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AMOS: Abdullah Sulieman heard dozens of these stories every day. In a Skype call, he tells me he started as a secretary at the clinic. He says the training taught him how to tell if a case was serious enough to refer to the only psychiatrist on staff. For the others, he offered practical solutions for basic needs - help with food or shelter, community - to give patients more control over their lives.

ABDULLAH SULIEMAN: To figure it out, to write it down, to know - does it need to be moved to the next level, or no, it's enough, I can tackle with it. This is our mission.

AMOS: In a conflict where the needs are so great, Dr. Hussam Jefee-Bahloul hopes he's doing his small part with this long-distance learning.

JEFEE-BAHLOUL: It's not really flashy. And it is very practical. And in these situations, you cannot be anything but practical. The main thing is really trying to help the people regain control over their life.

AMOS: It's the one message he can teach - focus on the things you can change. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.