Bridging Neuroscience, Culture and Technology to Advance Trauma Response in Humanitarian Emergencies Worldwide.
Free and Accessible, Community-led, Evidence-based Trauma Care for All.
PTSD, the Body and the Brain
Relief agencies face an enormous challenge. PTSD is a complex brain disorder, and studies indicate that the brain is wired by culture and the environment. Traumatic experiences trigger our survival response, impacting autonomic bodily functions and regulatory processes of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. While a normal defence mechanism, psychopathology is noted when the system is not restored once the life threat is no longer present.
For instance, over the years, we saw hundreds of PTSD cases in which the primary symptom complaint was somatic, and when taken to the hospital, local doctors and nurses could not identify its cause. This challenge led us to start a trauma education program for health providers, and overtime it became an in-demand project, as small health centers in precarious post-war regions were overwhelmed with PTSD cases.
Biological responses to traumatic events will often directly impact a person's ability to feel safe, engage with their bodies, and the world. While different neurobiological mechanisms (such as dysregulated circuits, fear conditioning, epigenetics, or memory reconsolidation) serve as a framework to understand different clusters of trauma symptoms (intrusion, avoidance, negative mood and cognition, and arousal), in general, it is noted that effective treatment models in PTSD have in common the ability to restore a sense of bodily safety and the synchronisation of social, psychological, and biological domains.
The Early Years
In the first decade, we operated as Second Chance Africa, and provided trauma/PTSD services to 7,037 individuals impacted by war in West Africa. Second Chance was founded as a local grassroots organization at the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, and later relocated to Liberia. Between 2008-2013 our team focused on the mission to deliver free mental health services to African communities impacted by war in partnership with local Ministries of Health and Justice, across rural and urban settings, including schools, orphanages, marginalized communities, and a prison center.
Over the years, we utilized several evidence-based clinical approaches, adapting existing techniques, combining them uniquely, and delivering multiple programs to address the overwhelming need for direct services in a challenging post-war environment. We focused on empowering local community workers, and learned a lot about cross-cultural trauma, regional healing practices and maladaptations to adversity. When the Ebola endemic broke out in West Africa in 2014, we had to close doors, but took it as an opportunity to re-evaluate our mission, lessons learned, and brainstorm a new operational model to catalyse change in a larger context.
We observed and experienced many of the common challenges in the field of emergency mental health, such as:
- The shortage of qualified mental health workers.
- Implementation of newly drafted mental health policies.
- Mental health stigma.
- Lack of reliable scientific treatment studies in cross-cultural, post-emergency settings.
While major institutions, government and well-established nonprofits are increasingly addressing the very needed challenge of capacity building, stigma reduction, and policy implementation, only a small minority engages in strengthening the evidence base for mental health interventions for trauma and related co-morbid conditions to promote more efficient models in humanitarian crises. This paucity of research makes it difficult for clinicians in the frontline to make informed decisions regarding viable treatments for impacted communities.
sync body-brain health
To advance trauma response in global emergencies, we evolved into SYNC Body-Brain Health, a research-driven organization that brings robust science in the non-profit sector to underrepresented traumatized populations. By engaging with local populations and collecting objective data, we aim to examine and develop free evidence-based solutions, and through effective partnerships, scale effective solutions to community leaders and service providers in the frontline of humanitarian emergency response.