You are here

Kawi Public Health Professor Develops Diagnosis and Care for Traumatic Stress in Developing Countries

Posted June 30, 2015
A social worker home visit in the Kitgum district, northern Uganda IMAGE: Alison Wright & Peter C. Alderman Foundation A social worker home visit in the Kitgum district, northern Uganda IMAGE: Alison Wright & Peter C. Alderman Foundation

When you think of "public health" as a profession, what comes to mind? 

Scientists working to find a vaccine for malaria? Discouraging populations from smoking? Influencing policy to reduce obesity, diabetes, and heart disease? 

How about alleviating emotional and behavioral disorders in vulnerable children, such as victims of war, genocide, forced relocation, or disaster?

That's the focus of Wietse Tol who as the first Dr. Ali and Rose Kawi Professor in Mental Health in the Bloomberg School of Public Health is on the front lines of global health, addressing today's mental health crisis in countries around the world. 

The grinding conditions

In developing countries in particular, mental health issues pose a complex challenge. Their impact on the health burden globally is greater than that of malaria or heart disease, and when calamities like natural disasters or warfare strike, their spread becomes even worse.

Tol explores a dimension of mental health often overlooked in crises caused by armed conflict or disaster settings — namely, the long-term stressors that these catastrophes impose on local populations or refugees, what he calls "the grinding conditions that hollow out people's resources." In addressing the spectrum of mental health issues that can arise in these situations, from simple distress to major disorders, Tol has been working to develop the informational research and assessment tools to support better prevention initiatives, as he puts it, "going upriver to find and work with  causes of mental health problems."

He has collaborated with policy makers at the World Health Organization to develop a set of international guidelines for the treatment of stress-related conditions in primary care settings, as well as a toolkit for the assessment of mental health needs in crisis settings. Tol and a a team of Bloomberg School graduate and doctoral students also are collaborating with UNICEF and others to develop a common international framework for monitoring and evaluating mental health programs around the world, to be used during times of humanitarian crises.

From field to classroom

Tol works as program director for an international service organization, the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, through an agreement with Johns Hopkins. The foundation is dedicated to providing on-the-ground treatment for the mental health problems of survivors of terrorism and mass violence around the globe.

Tol has applied much of what he has learned through this experience to his Bloomberg School course, "Preventing Mental Disorders and Promoting Mental Health in Low- and Middle-Income Countries." The course focuses on giving students the critical skills to translate research into practice through a hands-on, case-focused participation.

"It's been wonderful to combine research and practice, and to be able to transfer this knowledge from the university into the world of practice," says Tol. "That’s what I get the most excited about."

The Kawi Professorship was made possible through a gift from W. Hall Wendel, Jr., and named in honor of Ali A. Kawi, MD, DrPH (SPH '65). The Johns Hopkins Alliance for a Healthier World, a Bloomberg School graduate and professor emeritus of psychiatry at the State University of New York, and his wife. The Kawi Professorship supports individuals whose work and studies will advance public mental health research, education, and practice.

"I established this professorship to recognize Dr. Kawi's more than 55 years in the field of psychiatry and to support an exceptional faculty member who exemplifies Dr. Kawi's work in treatment, research, and education," Wendel says. "I'm pleased Dr. Tol was chosen and I remain proudly so, given his work and achievements addressing traumatic stress in low and middle-income populations."

"The concept of trauma," says Dr. Kawi, "underlies many of the disorders we see in individuals and communities worldwide."

Of the public health researcher, educator, and practitioner whose work takes him around the world where the need is greatest, Dr. Kawi adds: "Dr. Tol is well prepared to achieve a position of leadership and make a tremendous impact in the lives of vulnerable children. This is the ultimate goal of the professorship."

Connect with Wietse on Twitter