The mental health challenges experienced by students who have been affected by conflict and displacement, especially after the recent earthquake that struck Türkiye and Syria, are commonplace yet rarely supported. Acknowledging this need, Jusoor recently organized a mental health workshop for its university and high school scholars, offered by Dr. Alexandra Chen, a trauma psychologist and member of Jusoor's Board of Trustees. The goal of the session was to provide scholars with safe and valuable tools to manage their mental health and cope with the stress and trauma brought on by their life experiences.
As the session started, scholars were asked to share their priority needs and concerns. These included struggling with fear, anxiety, stress, trauma, insomnia, panic attacks, and, in particular, survivor's guilt. They were keen to learn how to process traumatic events and feelings of helplessness and to maintain ownership over their narrative. This was particularly important as their mental health difficulties were beginning to also interfere with their academic performance.
“It is easy to forget that high-performing students can often carry heavy emotional burdens — on the one hand, our scholars are shining examples of success and resilience; on the other hand, stress and guilt can naturally emerge from the duality of pursuing success and enjoying a better life while their families and communities are daily experiencing suffering, injustice, or insecurity. Our role is to provide them a space to seek answers, and not let them feel trapped in the pressure to perform.“ — Dr. Alexandra Chen
In response to the scholars’ needs, Dr. Chen shared relevant insights from the science of stress as well as practical tools for emotional regulation, trauma healing, and mental balance. First, she began by explaining the differences between fear, stress, anxiety, and trauma and how these emotional experiences can differently interfere with daily life — including sleep and diet — as well as academic performance, such as motivation and cognitive functioning. Scholars learned that these emotional and physiological responses are normal reactions to abnormal situations. They also discovered how such emotional reactions are felt in the body and are often expressed psychosomatically, including in the form of headaches, stomachaches, and back pain, as well as heart palpitations, muscle tension, and fatigue.
Additionally, scholars received practical steps for creating boundaries for traumatic triggers (e.g., limiting exposure to graphic social media), identifying negative self-talk, managing survivors' guilt, and reducing panic attacks. The session emphasized the importance of self-care: including tips for getting quality sleep, dietary considerations to strengthen mental health, and the neurochemical benefits of exercising regularly. Towards the end of the session, participants were guided through a few short but effective breathing, meditation, and stretching techniques that they could do at home to help calm the mind and reduce anxiety.
The mental health workshop was helpful for scholars to cope with difficult feelings and was timely right after the earthquake. Scholars reported that having the tools to better care for themselves mentally means that they are able to focus more on their studies, goals, and personal development and feel stronger both academically and personally. Additionally, the ability to do this in a workshop with other scholars reassures them that they are not alone and that their struggles are shared.
“As students in a foreign country, we often neglect our mental well-being due to busy schedules. The workshop provided a safe space for us to express our concerns and discuss the challenges we are facing. Personally, it helped me realize the importance of taking care of my mental health, and I found the tools and mechanisms provided by Dr. Chen to be extremely helpful in navigating negative emotions, particularly after the recent catastrophic events in Syria. The workshop could not have come at a better time, and I am very happy to have participated in it.” - Lina Othman, Jusoor Scholar
Jusoor aims to provide a safe and supportive environment where scholars can thrive academically and personally. Accordingly, in addition to such workshops, in recent years Jusoor has also ensured that all of our scholars can access a culturally-sensitive counselor to receive one-on-one support if needed.
“Jusoor is committed to supporting our scholars' mental health. We want to ensure that they have the right tools to recognize what they are feeling and implement healthy coping and healing mechanisms. Dr. Chen provided invaluable insight to our scholars.” — Sarah Shedeed, Jusoor Head of Scholarships
Finally, to support scholars longer-term, scholars have the opportunity to join a Telegram channel where Dr. Chen provides tips on mental health in Arabic. The channel is open to all, and Jusoor hopes that it will help to promote mental health awareness and greater psychosocial resilience within our wider community.