Patricia Shannon worked with Karen refugees as a therapist and authored several research studies. She knew many had suffered violent persecution in Myanmar, or Burma, and spent years in Thai refugee camps.
Still, the University of Minnesota researcher found the results of a new study of Minnesota’s fastest-growing refugee group “shocking.” The study showed some of the highest rates of war trauma and exposure to torture documented in a refugee group — on par with those experienced at the height of the Iraq war.
Shannon and her co-authors hope the study will inform and fuel a push to boost mental health screening and services to newcomers.
“We want health care providers to know about the history of the Karen and the physical and mental health effect it has,” said Shannon, a former therapist at the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture.
More than 8,000 Karen have settled in Minnesota over the past decade. Ehtaw Dwee, co-founder of the Karen Organization of Minnesota and an interpreter for the study, says stigma and reluctance to discuss mental illness compound the ravages of ethnic conflict.
“We don’t even have the vocabulary for a direct translation of mental health,” he said.
In the first effort to quantify trauma in the Karen in the United States, researchers interviewed 180 refugees in St. Paul. On average, they’d spent 13 years in refugee camps.
More than a quarter reported experiencing beatings, forced labor, rape or other forms of torture or witnessing a family member experience it. About 86 percent reported war trauma, from the destruction of homes to the loss of close relatives.
Authors also found that though refugees might keep mum about mental health symptoms, they will discuss them when physicians inquire proactively. They hope the research and a new mental health screening that Minnesota will pilot this fall will combat an attitude that Dwee describes this way: “What I suffer is just what my luck is. No one can help me.”