Cultural idioms of distress among displaced populations: A scoping review

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Background: Armed conflicts and natural disasters can cause significant psychological and social challenges for affected populations. Displaced populations are extremely heterogeneous in terms of culture, language, and experiences of crises. Current diagnostic criteria is insufficient when evaluating the symptoms and treatment of mental health issues across contexts. Aim: This scoping review presents information about cultural idioms of distress across displaced populations. The review includes aspects of etiology, symptomology, and proposed intervention methods. Methods: I conducted a Boolean search of academic and grey literature for studies that described cultural idioms of distress among displaced populations. Results were analyzed using thematic analysis and grounded theory. Results: A shared sense of injustice, spirit possession, and karma are common etiologies for mental distress among displaced populations. Symptoms include somatic complaints, ‘thinking a lot’, and interpersonal challenges such as social isolation and a fear of others. Potential interventions are likely on a community-level, including the generation of community mechanisms for conflict-resolution, reconciliation, and culturally grounded healing rituals. Conclusions: It is vital to understand the ways displaced communities conceptualize their mental health in order to develop appropriate culturally grounded interventions. Understanding the etiology, symptoms, and proposed interventions can inform and improve humanitarian aid delivery of mental health and psychosocial support services.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-13
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Social Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • collectivism
  • cultural idiom of distress
  • Displacement
  • refugee

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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