Press release: Arts and Humanities Research Council Global Challenge Research Fund Idioms of Distress, Wellbeing and Resilience

By Alison Phipps, University of Glasgow

The language used to express pain, joy and resilience is a vital well of understanding for those seeking to treat and mitigate distress. In populations of displaced peoples and refugees across the world the effects of trauma caused by loss and suffering are felt acutely. Mental health practitioners tend, however, to overlook the important of the languages used to express distress and to use more technical, medical terms than those that we might use in our everyday life, in our proverbs and songs.

Prof Alison Phipps, UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow, with its affliates at the University of Ghana, Legon and Islamic University of Gaza is leading a team of researchers in Ghana at present. The researchers are examining the way in which people express their distress and develop ways of coping with distress in many different languages. From the Arabic of the Gaza strip and the on-going siege, to the languages of refugees and displaced peoples and ethnic groups in Northern Uganda, to refugee young people in Scotland, to those enduring the loss of cultural heritage in Zimbabwe, linguists, artists and global mental health researchers together with clinical psychologists are engaged in a unique project.

Words, proverbs and phrases have been collected in these different contexts and the common themes and important differences have been analysed. This is helping with more accurate diagnosis of forms of trauma or distress but also providing an vital well of support from indigenous knowledges, readily available. In the wisdom contained in oral history and proverbs the ways people have coped with distress can be revealed and show an important link to the land, to customs, to food and song.

As well as publishing academic findings the team are also working with Noyam African Dance Institute, under the leadership of Nii-Tete Yartey, to explore the sounds, music and languages and to express these in dance. The dances help reveal a world of assistance and substance beyond that of the medical or clinical setting. Gameli Tordzro and Naa Densua Tordzro are leading the artistic work, which includes a production focusing on the distress caused by separation of families and peoples by borders, not least for refugees but also for others caught in the web of entanglements which is the experience of visa application and refusal processes. In addition, the team are presenting making a documentary about their work with Noyam. This includes recording the experiences of the Noyam young people who recently visited Scotland to perform as headline acts at the annual Solas Festival, as well as performing for the inaugural lecture of the UNESCO Chair at the University of Glasgow.

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