I want to help others find the help they need

Language issues, discrimination, and stigma are just a few of the many obstacles migrants and refugees in Europe can face in seeking mental healthcare. In her research project Mentalhealth4all, intercultural health communication specialist Barbara Schouten of the UvA Centre for Urban Mental Health tries to identify these barriers and searches for ways to overcome them. ‘From my experience growing up with a mother who came to the Netherlands as a refugee, I know how crucial it can be to know your way around an unfamiliar healthcare system. This motivates me to help others find the help they need.’

The individual versus the collective

Due to generally more challenging living conditions, the need for mental healthcare can be high in refugee and other migrant populations. However, few people seek help and if they do, programs often end prematurely. The reasons can be versatile. Schouten: ‘For example, a different evaluation of the needs of the individual versus the needs of the collective can play a role. I recently spoke to a Syrian woman who experiencesongoing feelings of anxiety and guilt. She is hesitant to seek help because she is afraid that if she starts therapy, she won’t be able to cope with the emotions that might surface. She fears that means she won’t be able to function and provide the much needed emotional support to her family back in war-torn Syria.’ But other factors play a role too: ‘In many cultures,there is still this notion that seeing a therapist means you are crazy. Furthermore, the language difficulties form a frustrating combination with the long waiting lists. People wait a long time to have an intake and are subsequently referred to another caretaker because of the language, where they have to start back in line again.’

But it’s not just the dynamics on the patients’ side that hamper the accessibility of mental healthcare. In Mentalhealth4all, Schouten and her colleagues also investigate what hurdles healthcare professionals encounter when treating migrants. ‘They mention for example that they find it hard to judge which diagnostic instruments are appropriate in an intercultural setting.’

Normalise and inform

In the end, the project will result in a digital platform where bottlenecks on both sides of the aid relationship are addressed. For patients, Schouten and colleagues will create partly animated videos to normalise and inform. ‘We will measure what these videos do for patients in terms of knowledge, confidence, attitude, and behavior. Do people understand that experiencing psychological problems can be a normal response to adversity? Do they feel more confident to seek help? Do they know where to turn to for help and what to expect?’

For mental health professionals, the platform will offer e-learning modules addressing cultural sensitivity in different steps of the aid process. ‘My hope is of course that evaluation will show the platform is being used, helps people find the care they need, and helps professionals attune to differentneeds from different patients, so we can scale up and reach more underserved populations in Europe.’


Schouten will elaborate on her research during the symposium Societal Challenges, Global Mental Health and Humane AI at SPUI25 on January 9th. The symposium is organized by the UvA Centre for Urban Mental Health and the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation in celebration of the honorary doctorates awarded to Professor dr. Vikram Patel (Harvard University) and Professor dr. Chris Manning(Stanford University). Patel is one of the founders of the field of global mental health and spent his career trying to make psychological interventions available around the globe.

Alongside Barbara Schouten, Patel and Manning and other researchers and experts will discuss pressing questions on the intersection of global mental health and humane AI.

Follow this link for the full program and to register for the Symposium.

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