Desperate crowd awaits relief aid at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, 2014
Desperate crowd awaits relief aid at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, 2014

A study launched by Wayne State University School of Medicine researchers six months ago to determine the mental health impact and biological correlation of civil war trauma on Syrian refugees now living in the United States shows that 30 percent of adult refugees experience post-traumatic stress disorder and 50 percent experience depression.

In addition, 60 percent of Syrian children show signs of anxiety because of the trauma — very likely impacted by their mother’s PTSD, said study principal investigator Arash Javanbakht, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences.

The refugees had been in the U.S. for two to eight weeks at the time of their interviews with the researchers.

Javanbakht is a psychiatrist and director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic on the university’s campus in Detroit. The study, “Risk and Resilience in Syrian Refugees,” is his first research effort at WSU.

Working with the Arab American and Chaldean Council (ACC) and its related health clinics in Dearborn and Sterling Heights, a team that includes several former Iraqi war refugees collected epidemiological, genetic, inflammation and stress data from 400 study participants, including 95 families, now living in Southeast Michigan.

The refugees were also asked to describe in the 10- to 30-minute interview any challenges they faced because of the civil war; their circumstances before, during and after fleeing their home country; the meaning of this experience for them; their mental and physical health; family dynamics and more.

“We want to see the epidemiological and biological vulnerability and resilience factors related to the effects of civil war trauma on this unique ethnic and cultural population,” Javanbakht said. “We also collect saliva for genetic and epigenetic studies of factors contributing to resilience or vulnerability to PTSD. We collect hair to measure cortisol, which will let us know the cumulative level of stress over the last few months. We also look at inflammation markers, as there is recent evidence linking the role of inflammation to the development of PTSD.”

The physician, a dual citizen of Iran and the United States, said, “I know the culture. This group is very vulnerable. They need the medical field to advocate for them, now instead of later.”

Many team members are volunteers, including five research assistants who served as dentists and physicians in Iraq and Dubai. They have a 90 percent success rate in recruiting eligible participants.

Dr. Arash Javanbakht and Victor Blackwell of CNN

Javanbakht hopes to secure external funding to expand the study population and continue the work, with plans to follow a cohort of refugee children for up to 20 years.

He also is accepting donations to provide culturally tailored intervention and treatment, including telemedicine psychiatry services. “It is vital to provide these interventions sooner than later, to prevent ongoing negative effects of PTSD and depression on day-to-day life and adjustment of the refugees to their new environment.”


To donate, contact WSU’s Edward Maki-Schramm at (313) 577-6482.