Trauma Exposure and Coping Mechanism in Eritrean Refugees: An Exploratory Study

Purpose of Study: East Africa is a region of tremendous political and social upheaval. Refugees from this region have resettled in many countries, including the United States. Despite recognition of the enormous mental health needs in East African refugees, there is little literature formally assessing the degree of trauma exposure or the types of coping strategies employed by this group. This lack of knowledge may be partially attributable to the lack of culturally valid assessment tools. The purpose of this pilot-study is to identify traumatic life events in Eritrean refugees and explore what adaptations of existing measures are necessary to identify coping strategies employed by this population.

Methods Used: Open-ended interviews were conducted with 10 Eritrean refugees and asylees between the ages of 23 and 47 who migrated to the United States after 1998 (7 Males and 3 females). The Horn of Africa Needs Assessment was used by integrating questions from the Ways of Coping Checklist (WCC), Coping Orientation to Problems Experienced (COPE) and the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale(CDRS). Additional questions included in the interview reflected domains pertinent to the Eritrean history and traditions projected to give insights on culturally relevant coping strategies. Resulting transcription of the interviews were analyzed and types of trauma and coping strategies categorized.

Summary of Results: Types of traumatic stressors identified included combat-related trauma, physical torture, detention, sexual harassment, natural disasters and culture shock. Identified coping strategies included faith and religion, family and community support, positive reinterpretation, use of herbs and alcohol as well as various spiritual practices deeply rooted in the Eritrean culture.

Conclusions: Trauma exposure was common and severe in this population. General categories of coping mechanisms identified in Eritrean refugees were similar to coping strategies recognized in other regions of the world. The use of specific herbs, traditional ceremonies and certain spiritual rituals were unique to this population. Future studies or clinical work with this or similar populations may benefit by integration of these newly identified strategies.

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