Courtney Welton-Mitchell, PhD
Clinical Assistant Professor
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, Colorado School of Public Health
Institute of Behavioral Science & Natural Hazards Center (NHC), University of Colorado – Boulder
Q & A with Dr. Welton-Mitchell
How would you describe your research interests?
My work is focused on mental health, interpersonal violence, and disaster preparedness-related intervention development and testing, typically in international settings involving humanitarian crises. This includes work with internally displaced and refugee populations.
What types of intervention work do you do in the field of population mental health and wellbeing (PMHW)?
I focus on mental health interventions that emphasize capacity building at the community level, particularly in low income and remote settings where access to hospitals, clinics and traditional mental health experts is limited. I also work in communities that experience cumulative and cyclical disasters, providing community members with training and resources that they can use to support one another. Typically, I work with large multi-national teams in various countries. Our teams work to promote resilience by bolstering community resources through use of group-based mental health and gender-based violence interventions that are culturally adapted.
Where do you conduct your research?
Last year I did some work in Northern Ethiopia with Center for Victims of Torture and in Iraqi Kurdistan and Colombia with Heartland Alliance International. In recent years I have been involved in projects with Tenaganita in Malaysia working with Rohingya refugees, and with ABAAD in Lebanon working with Syrian refugees. Through work with Rohingya in various locations, including the camps in Bangladesh, I have learned about the extent to which community networks are able to mobilize and support one another, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, including historical trauma, human rights abuses, acute traumatic events, and chronic daily stressors. I have also worked on disaster mental health invention research in Haiti and Nepal and witnessed great resilience among communities devastated by earthquakes and seasonal flooding.
How do you ensure your work is community-based and culturally-tailored?
We always partner with in-country, national and local, colleagues and our research follows a stage-wise multi-method process. We typically start with exploratory data collection, including collecting data on social and cultural norms, and use this data to develop and adapt culturally-tailored interventions. In addition, we utilize advisory councils, which are comprised of local community leaders, such as religious authorities, teachers and others. For example, the group curriculum in Nepal includes discussions about karmic frameworks, in Malaysia religious perspectives on domestic violence are discussed. This process of developing a culturally-tailored interventions is cyclical and iterative, with advisory councils engaged throughout the process, in addition to pilot testing and ongoing modifications.
How has your research changed in the context of COVID-19?
We have a few grants under review right now. We are trying to adapt the methodology and content to address COVID-19. For example, we have a grant under review for a multi-country scale-up of the disaster mental health intervention utilized in Haiti and Nepal. We hope to expand to Afghanistan, Burundi, S. Sudan and elsewhere, in partnership with HealthNet TPO. The intervention is a group-based curriculum that can be adapted to different countries, and various cultural and disaster contexts. In light of COVID-19, we are working on adapting content to include pandemics, and methods to accommodate movement restrictions and safety protocols.
I am also affiliated with the Natural Hazards Center out of UC Boulder and participate in a working group focused on risk communication specific to COVID-19. The group just received a Rapid Grant from NSF to examine how variation in state policy and public health messaging strategies impact risk perceptions and behaviors across time in multiple U.S. states.In a related effort, this week I am submitting a grant to examine the relationship between COVID-19 related information seeking and mental health among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the U.S. If funded, we hope this work can be used to inform community-specific risk communication strategies.
What is an example of a course that you teach related to PMHW?
In addition to EHOH 6642: Disaster Mental Health this semester, I teach EHOH 6645: Research Methods: Climate, Disaster and Humanitarian Perspectives, summer 2020. This is a practical research proposal building course, focused on mixed methods approaches for testing a variety of public/health interventions, including mental health initiatives. The final proposal can be used to apply for grants to support domestic or international research. I would encourage anyone interested to register for the course.