International

Houston psychiatrists return from visits to Syria and Turkey where they provided mental health relief 

More than 50,000 people have died from the earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey last month.

Rescue workers search for survivors on a collapsed building in Malatya, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Search teams and aid are pouring into Turkey and Syria as rescuers working in freezing temperatures dig through the remains of buildings flattened by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake.
AP Photo/Emrah Gurel
Rescue workers search for survivors on a collapsed building in Malatya, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

Two Houston psychiatrists went on a two-week trip to help with relief efforts in Syria and Turkey after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit in February.

More than 50,000 people have died from the earthquake and more than 100,000 were injured from the natural disaster. United Nation officials estimate relief efforts will cost more than $100 billion.

Doctor Sophia Banu is a Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist who visited the area to provide mental health relief to residents affected. Banu said conflict in Syria has been ongoing for 12 years, and the earthquake added to the mental stress of residents in the area.

"About an hour from where we were, there was shelling going on," Banu said. "So despite the earthquake, the bombing and shelling hadn't stopped. Aid did not reach to the most desperately in need [for] up to eight days."

Banu said tremors that are still happening a month later are likely causing post-trauma stress even after physical injuries from the earthquake have healed.

Dania Albaba is a Syrian-American medical resident at Baylor College of Medicine also who visited Syria and Turkey with Banu. She saw the same stress even after physical injuries have been treated.

"There are so many children that are traumatized, right? Being all alone, trapped. For hours and hours, days," she said.

Albaba said one 4-year-old they worked with was visiting family with his mom before the earthquake hit.

"His dad stayed in a different city. The earthquake hit. His aunts, family, his mom, his siblings, all passed away. His dad was the only living relative," Albaba said. "And the only thing he could say to us was, ‘baba, bidi baba', which translates to, ‘my daddy, I want my daddy'."

The two psychiatrists started training in Gaziantep, Turkey and visited neighboring cities affected by the earthquake. Eventually, they were allowed entry into Syria for five days, and visited various cities there.

"One of our trainings was focused on retraumatization, what retraumatization is, what vicarious trauma is," Banu said. "We did definitely want to stress on that."

Retraumatization happens when someone re-lives stress reactions experienced as a result of a traumatic event, although they won't always realize the stress they are experiencing is related to earlier trauma in their lives.

"For a lot of people, they're re-living the horror over, and over, and over again," Albaba said. "That kind of support, I can't stress enough, is going to be really, really, important."