Somali Refugee Women and their Explanatory Models of Mental Health Open Access

Malik, Leena Fatima (2014)

Permanent URL:


Somali refugees in the United States have been of interest to researchers due to research that puts the prevalence of mental health issues of Somali refugees at 1 in 3 people (WHO). Somalia has an intense history with great focus in the west put on the torture, murder, and rape of Somali people during the Somali Civil War. Despite research on prevalence of mental illness in refugees from a western perspective, multiple studies cite the lack of culturally-relevant research to the area of mental health and well-being. It is vital to study the cultural constructs, history, and experiences of Somali refugees because the expression of psychological distress is inevitably culturally bound. This means views of well-being and mental health are also culturally bound and cannot be understood without first-hand accounts.

The goal of this paper is to explore the facets of life as a Somali woman refugee that shape Somali views of mental health. I conducted semi-structured interviews using a framework called EMIC to ask questions related to mental illness and well-being. These interviews helped clarify explanatory models of mental illness and well-being and allowed me to extract 6 important themes of Somali women refugee mental health. While my original hypothesis was that the explanatory models of Somalis and Americans were radically different, in fact, many beliefs in the causes of mental illness run parallel in the two cultures. Ultimately, well-being in this population comes from three important cultural values: family, community, and religion. Other facets of daily life such as work, sleep, and dress promote strong cultural bonds and are vital to mental health and well-being in this population. Mental health promotion and mental illness prevention in America for Somali refugees should take into account these important facets that form Somali identity.

Table of Contents

I. On Somali Refugees...1

My Personal Account...1
A Brief History of Somalia...4
Clarkston and the Refugee Experience...10
Refugees in American Media Frames...13

II. Perspectives on Mental Health...16

Global Mental Health...16
Mental Health in Sociology...22
The DSM Controversies...25

III. The Study and Methodology...32

Somali Refugees and the Need for Cross Cultural Research...32
The Explanatory Model Interview Catalogue and Narrative Research...36

IV. Interviews...41

The Themes...48
Belief Constructs...63

Works Cited...71

List of Figures and Tables

Table 1: ICD versus DSM Depression Diagnostic Criteria...26
Table 2: Interview Results...46
Figure 1: Belief Constructs of Somali Refugee Women...63
Figure 2: Comparison of Beliefs...64

About this Honors Thesis

Rights statement
  • Permission granted by the author to include this thesis or dissertation in this repository. All rights reserved by the author. Please contact the author for information regarding the reproduction and use of this thesis or dissertation.
  • English
Research Field
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisor
Committee Members
Last modified

Primary PDF

Supplemental Files