Hopelessness, Harshness, and How You Can help: Stacey Shaw’s Research on Mental Health among Refugees in Malaysia

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Dr. Stacey Shaw is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work whose interest in her field started by becoming aware of the world around her through getting involved on campus while she attended BYU. After obtaining her bachelor and master degrees in Provo, Shaw worked at the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency in Salt Lake, and later went on to earn her PhD at Columbia University. Her research primarily involves work with refugees, both in the United States and internationally.

Refugee Presence in Malaysia

The Southeast-Asian nation of Malaysia remains among the top 10 host countries for refugees on their way to a third country. Over 80% of the 70 million refugees worldwide are hosted by underdeveloped or developing countries and Malaysia on its own host 177,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have very limited legal rights. Working together with community based organizations, Dr. Shaw’s team aimed to better understand the mental health needs of Afghan and Rohingya refugees, however, the studies participants make up only a small percentage of the refugees in Malaysia and their findings do not represent all refugees and should not be generalized.

Refugee’s Conditions

Refugees’ undocumented status in Malaysia resulted in a lack of public services such as healthcare and work opportunities. Across Dari- and Farsi- speaking refugees included in the study, nearly half experienced high levels of food insecurity. Around 17% of the study’s participants were homeless, or, if not, lived in crowded, non-permanent conditions. Other challenges that families experienced that are common to refugee conditions both in the U.S. and abroad were economic wellbeing and disrupted education for school-aged children.  Additionally, many refugees dealt with unwelcoming natives, reporting harassment and extortion by Malaysian authorities. 

Such unfortunate uncontrollable conditions and an uncertain future led to stress that caused hopelessness, difficulty regulating emotions, and lowered cognitive abilities (like memory and decision making). Using a test that measures symptoms of mental disorders (e.g. anxiety and depression) and trauma specifically in refugees, Shaw and her research team found that 98.8% of their participants measured positive for emotional distress symptoms – a percentage four times higher than Shaw expected. One factor, however, associated with lower levels of stress was marriage. Having a partner to share responsibilities and provide social and emotional support may strengthen physical and mental wellbeing.

Moving Forward in Malaysia

Shaw suggests implementing more community resources or opportunities for social support, but believes what is really needed is a large scale policy solution. Key services opportunities to provide social support include additional health, employment, and education services. The refugees expressed genuine desire to discuss the difficulties of living as a refugee and for help developing coping strategies. 

Helping Out At Home

You don’t have to major in social work or go far from home to provide service to refugees here in Utah and internationally.  To get started, Shaw suggests starting with what interest you. Attend lectures, read about the refugee crisis, ask questions, and find people that are doing things that you care about and connect with them. Being informed and politically active will allow you to make a positive difference. There are many opportunities around campus and Utah to get educated and get involved. 

  • Shaw, alongside Christopher Quinlan, advised the student led Refugee Empowerment Club that was recently dissolved into the first university chapter of Their Story is Our Story. Their aim is to educate students raising awareness through guest speakers and connecting students with service opportunities around Utah.
  • BYU’s Center for Service and Learning (Y-Serve) has a Refugee Program that meets once a week to  sort out donations, and make quilts, mattresses, and teddy bears for refugees in Jordan.
  • The International Rescue Committee’s Salt Lake office always appreciates student volunteers to help tutor and mentor refugees.

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