Baylor psychiatrist provides aid to Turkish, Syrian earthquake victims

After a severe earthquake hit Turkey and Syria in early February, immediate aid was necessary. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused extreme devastation and destruction, killing more than 57,000 people and injuring more than 125,000 others.

When a Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist learned that help was needed fast, she and third-year psychiatry resident Dr. Dania Albaba traveled with MedGlobal to offer support to those affected, as well as to the doctors working to save lives. They were joined by another resident Dr. Nora Abdullah from UT Southwestern.

“In the past when I’ve done disaster work, I usually go a month or two after the disaster, but this time, I went days after the earthquake,” said Dr. Sophia Banu, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor. “Usually at the start, the immediate needs are food, shelter and surgeries, but we were told they needed mental health help as soon as possible.”

Banu, who has a history of working in disaster relief, modified training modules to make them culturally appropriate ahead of her visit to help train aid workers in mental healthcare. She has done similar work in the past to provide aid during disasters, including the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, refugee care in Bangladesh and to Hurricane Harvey survivors in Houston in 2017.

Drs. Sophia Banu, Dania Albaba and Nora Abdullah visited Turkey and Syria for trauma-informed mental health training.

While she didn’t work directly with patients in Turkey and Syria, Banu and her team trained healthcare and community workers on four mental health-focused modules, all of which were translated into Arabic. She conducted three of the modules training in English, and her residents helped with interpretation. Albaba modified and presented the Skills for Psychological Recovery in Arabic. It was important to have all the modules translated into Arabic, and the trainings available in both English and Arabic, so the healthcare workers could pass on what they learned.

“The goal was to train the trainers. I’ve done these trainings in the past, and I always modify them to make sure they are culturally appropriate,” Banu said.

Each session began with an exercise prompting trainees to label their feelings when they feel them. This allowed them to feel comfortable and at ease when discussing challenging topics, Banu said. The exercise served as a “gateway” into forming relationships with other participants.

The training modules included:

  • Skills for Psychological Recovery: Evidence-informed manual for adaptive coping in disaster areas for those experiencing moderate levels of distress.
  • Public Health Approach to Human Trafficking: Creating awareness and education about the vulnerability of survivors of disasters and the risk of human trafficking. Human traffickers typically operate in disaster zones because they can easily take advantage of confusing border lines and displaced peoples, Banu said.
  • Trauma Through the Ages: Exploring post-disaster trauma symptoms in children and adolescents as well as sharing tips for healthcare providers, educators and parents to help their children cope
  • Retraumatization, Vicarious Trauma and Self-Care/Compassion: Increasing awareness of community individuals who work in post-disaster settings to recognize signs of vicarious trauma while emphasizing the importance of self-compassion and self-care

The trainings concluded with an exercise called the Web of Goodness. Participants held a ball of yarn and said one good thing about themselves, followed by throwing the yarn to the next person. The exercise would end with everyone holding a piece of yarn, connected in a web.

“We concluded the exercise by displaying that we all have something good within us, and that when we feel helpless and alone, wondering if we are really helping the people in need, it reminds us that we are not alone; we know that we are all connected,” Banu said. “Each one of us brings this goodness to the people we are helping. What unites us in this space is the goodness we have within us.”

Other doctors on the team came from around the world and included orthopedic surgeons, anesthesiologists and pulmonary critical care physicians.

While Banu and her team were scheduled to do a training the morning after they landed in Turkey, another earthquake hit upon their arrival, canceling the session. They decided to visit some of the worst affected areas, traveling to a ski town called Kahramanmaraş near the epicenter of the earthquake in Antakya.

She described the experience as eerie. Surrounded by beautiful snowcap mountains, Kahramanmaraş can resemble a Swiss ski town. Following the earthquake, however, the area was desolate and unnerving. They examined rows of houses and buildings that were partially or completely collapsed, noticing everyday items like pots and pans, and toys and notebooks in the rubble.

“I can’t find the words to describe it. It was so dead, but we knew just a week or two before it was a bustling, beautiful community,” she said.

Banu explained that Syria felt different than Turkey as they saw people living in tents who were internally displaced because of ongoing conflict in their country.

“I’ve never been to a country where so many people were internally displaced, all living in tents experiencing acute on chronic trauma – the chronic trauma of getting internally displaced due to constant bombings and shellings, on top of the acute trauma of the earthquake,” she explained.

While only two months have passed, many in the international community have already moved on. Banu says this typically happens after a disaster, but she encourages people to keep offering help and spreading awareness about changing needs.

If a person has the opportunity and means, donate to agencies doing work in the field and continue talking about what happened so others feel empowered to help, too, she recommended.

“Even though there was such a sense of desperation, desolation and destruction, people were very kind and welcoming. They felt that people cared, coming all the way from America to help,” Banu said. “There is still a huge need for rebuilding communities, houses, mental health and physical health and the best part is that we have the capability of helping, each and every one of us.”

By Homa Shalchi Warren