PTSD in Somalia

Professor Lori A. Zoellner from the Psychology department talks about a research on developing an Islamic-centered trauma healing method in Somlia.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is just what the name implies: an overwhelming, often debilitating anxiety that follows a traumatic event in someone’s life. It could be the death of a loved one, a physical assault, or really anything you might find traumatising. Many associate PTSD with soldiers returning from war, but for thousands living in Somalia, there is no escape from the near-constant conflict that’s plagued the North African country for over two decades.

“People are frightened by killings, diseases, and hunger,” international studies professor Daniel Chirot said.

Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, leading to infighting between regional clans. The current central leadership is weak, and cannot effectively enforce their laws in large portions of the country. This power vacuum led to regional fighting, extremism, and an untold number of human rights violations against the Somali people. As expected, PTSD rates are high in Somalia, but traditional Islamic beliefs, language and cultural differences, and limited access to care are holding sufferers back from seeking help. 

A team of UW psychologists and behavioral scientists recently won a grant through the Population Health Initiative, which awarded five pilot research grants to faculty-led teams to address a human-centered issue in global health. 

They are aiming to develop an effective and low-cost PTSD treatment within community mosques in Somalia. According to the researchers, no Islamic-focused trauma treatments currently exist. 

“Mental health is a new thing to the world,” Chirot said. “In the past, there was no such thing as mental health and most traditional cultures consider mental issues as your family’s own business.” 

This team has been working with the Somali Reconciliation Institute for about five years. The founder and director of the SRI, Duniya Lang, approached UW psychology professor and team member Lori Zoellner about creating a program to promote trauma-focused reconciliation within the Somali community.

“We want to develop a program that fits with the Islamic faith and also with the Somali culture,” Zoellner said.

Their approach to healing is a brief series of community-led meetings in mosques around the country. Faith leaders and community members lead group discussions on Islamic trauma healing for six sessions.

“We are not viewing this as a therapy,”  Zoellner said. “It is about promoting healing and reconciliation. We worked hard to put in Islamic principles and so every session begins with a supplication written by the local Imam and tea and snacks. Tea is very important in Somali culture as far as building community and having tea together.”

Men and women are separated into groups in hopes of making each more comfortable during the session. Group leaders read prophet narratives from the Quran and discuss how they relate to shifts in thinking and beliefs people experience after a traumatic event. 

There is also individual time of Doha, in which they have time to talk to Allah about their trauma experience and pray. 

“In lower and middle income countries, it is very unlikely for them to train hundreds or thousands of mental health workers in a short time,”  Zoellner said. “If we want programs that have a reach for promoting trauma healing, it really needs to shift to the community and to lay-leaders so that the interventions don’t involve mental health professionals, but to involve people who are respected in their communities.”

Their biggest obstacle is funding, so grants like the Population Health Initiative make their fieldwork in Somalia possible. The team also partnered with Abu-Bakr Islamic center, and received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health as well as the Global Population Health grant that enabled the team to begin this intervention in Somalia. They hope to expand this Islamic based treatment method to the global Muslim community in the near future.

“The greatest value I see in the project is that it is community based,” co-investigator Jake Bentley said. “Once lay-leaders are trained, they can benefit their own communities and they can train other lay-leaders as well. Once it works, it will be a self-sustaining intervention.”

Reach reporter Yiru Luo at Twitter: @YiruLuo

(6) comments


Sounds like exciting work. It’s also well known that this professor stole the foundational work from a local Somali woman who began it and was then cut out of the project. The UW should investigate this intellectual property theft. It is reprehensible that in the 21st-century a white woman would steal the work of a woman of color. I am ashamed of our institution.


What is going on here? This is Duniya Lang’s work. If you want to know about it, ask her. This article borders on bizarre. A non somali, non African, non Muslim woman is the face of this extraordinary work? This is intellectual dishonesty, misrepresentation and theft. I’m appalled.


There’s a lady called Duniya Lang who was behind the whole idea and started this project. She asked “Dr. Lori” for her assistance and “expertise” to further her research. This is so disgusting and I’m appalled. There’s no way I could trust her with anything. No morals. So disrespectful to the whole community. This needs to be investigated and returned to the rightful owner.


Let me get this right. A white person and non-Muslim at that, is speaking on the perspectives of the traumas of war and islamic healing?? Not surprised since white people have stolen lands, stolen people from their continents and appropriated entire cultures as their own. But what’s surprising is UW condoning this despicable behavior and getting away with it under our noses. This is broad daylight robbery of Duniya Lang’s work and research she’s trying to pass as her own. Such a shame.


It's appalling and disheartening to know that this is the outcomes of grant funds used to help a minority community. Please tell what, if any, is the professor's hands-on experience of teauma in Somalia? This issue, and its cultural competent solutions were brought to her by a community leader in need of resources to create the research and project. Shame on the WU for allowing this appropriation. The idea that someone will use an already traumatized community and not aknowledge its leadership is proposterous. I will be contacting the funders of the project too. Please contact the community and ask what's really going on.

Diirane inshaar

This is shameful act, you copied someone else and then present it as your ouwn atleast give credit so people can know where you got this inspiration.

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