No longer are the high rates of psychiatric morbidity associated with mass violence in refugee populations invisible to the humanitarian assistance community. However, identification of mental health risk and protective factors that can be utilized by policy planners is still lacking. The objective of this report is to provide an analytic approach to determining these factors. A description is provided from the first large-scale epidemiological study of Cambodian refugees confined to the Thailand-Cambodian border in the 1980s and 1990s. The original data from this study are reanalyzed to evaluate the mental health impact of psychosocial factors subject to the influence of camp authorities, such as opportunities in the refugee camp environment and personal behaviors, in addition to trauma. The results suggest the extraordinary capacity of refugees to protect themselves against mental illness despite horrific life experiences. The recommendation emerges for refugee policy makers to create programs that support work, indigenous religious practices, and culture-based altruistic behavior among refugees. As refugee mental health policy receives increasing attention from the international community, it must consist of recommendations and practices based on scientific analysis and empirical evidence.
1 Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, 22 Putnam Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139. Send reprint requests to Dr. Mollica.
2 Department of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts.
3 Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.