Finding the Right Words - Enhancing Knowledge of Local Dialects to Better Understand Distress, Well-Being, and Resilience

Published: 27 June 2022

This research focuses on how local languages are used to express distress and well-being.

A large group of people sit and stand in a large circle under a blue and white striped tent. They are playing instruments and singing.

Stress, distress, resilience, and well-being are mental states that every human being experiences in their lives. These feelings are deeply personally and borne from a myriad of reasons. The ability to share experiences is deeply important for the process of dealing with these feelings. This need to share experience can be even more important for individuals who are fleeing from conflict or persecution and seek refuge in different countries with different languages. Two thirds of refugees coming to the U.K. were not confident in their current levels of English1. This impacts their ability to share and process their traumatic experiences and can put them at even more of a disadvantage as they begin to rebuild their lives and try to meet their immediate needs. 

A team led by Professor Alison Phipps set out to address the challenge of language gaps as a barrier to well-being for refugees through their project ‘Idioms of Distress, Resilience and Well-Being: Enhancing understanding about mental health in multilingual contexts.’ Building on research already happening in Ghana, Gaza, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, the team focused on the way local languages are used to express distress and well-being. 

A Global Project that Helps at Home 

The research team brought together interdisciplinary researchers from across the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Ghana, and Uganda. To ensure they had a strong base to build on, the team completed a comparative literature review of expressions of distress, resilience, and well-being from research undertaken in Ghana, Gaza, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. By including both the medical literature on mental health and language studies and anthropology, the team was able to build their understanding across many different disciplines and perspectives. The next step was to explore how these findings could help people who were building new lives in new countries.  

Through in-person and digital interviews with new arrival refugees in Glasgow and with young people living in Ghana, Uganda, Gaza Strip and Zimbabwe, the team learned about the experiences of refugees in many different contexts. They used methodologies that encouraged participants to share stories about their languages. The researchers then investigated how participants use words in translingual contexts after reaching their host nations.  

By combining the literature review and direct engagement with refugees, the team was able to define expressions of resilience, stress, well-being, and distress from past academic literature and in the language being used by refugees at the time of the project. 

“Communities worldwide, who are not able to afford or access what might be term as western styles of clinical psychology, have within themselves extraordinary and enduring resources for resilience, and wellbeing. The proverbs, mantra, idioms, and folk wisdom of people, passed down in wit, humour, joke, advice, or everyday interaction, whilst overlooked in the scholarship, are nonetheless a vital source of love, hope and life for the majority, and a present help in times in trouble.” - Prof Alison Phipps 

Research through Activity

Once the data was collected and analyzed, the research team was able to work closely with arts organizations, refugee groups, and festivals to develop workshops for refugees. These workshops aim to provide people newly arriving in the United Kingdom from Ghana, Uganda, Gaza Strip and Zimbabwe with a safe space to express themselves through storytelling and group engagement. Groups worked with Dr Gameli Tordzro and Tawona Sitholé to explore their well-being and ideas of resilience through their own local cultural heritage and language.  

The researchers worked with participants from refugee groups to produce performances, artefacts, and pieces of writing that shared the experience of refugees travelling and making their home in new countries. One output that highlights the team’s approach is a documentary showcasing the work done by the team in Ghana with young dancers of Noyam Institute for African Dance and theatre makers. In this three-week initiative, the young people devised a piece using music, textiles, movement, spoken word, and song to share their understanding of distress, resilience, and well-being. A kilt was later designed and woven by Dr Gameli Tordzro that connects the cultures of Ghana and Scotland together and multiple performances brought together researchers and young people in Scotland to share and explore multilingual storytelling.  

The engaging and interactive work associated with the project gave research team member and stakeholders opportunities to share their experiences in a way that best suits their needs. It also gave organisations and the public in host countries the opportunity to better understand how to meet the needs of people arriving in the U.K. 

A Far-Reaching Impact

The findings from the ‘Idioms of Distress’ project are already benefiting refugees trying to build new lives and the organizations that support them. Care-giving organizations can develop their own practices using the multilingual tools shared and developed through the project. Policymakers in host countries have also benefitted from understanding the different needs that these individuals have as they arrive and begin to settle into new lives after devastating experiences in their home countries. The approaches and tools developed throughout the project also help organisations gain a broader understanding of how to better support refugee integration through the mitigation of distress. 

Next Steps 

The work pioneered by the Idioms of Distress team continues to be developed and applied in new contexts. The research team is collaborating with a much larger research network through the GCRF Migration for Development and Equality (MIDEQ) HUB to develop a better understanding of the emotional distress and the needs for well-being of people travelling through migration corridors all around the world. By continuing to develop better understandings of the needs and the experiences of migrants, organizations can improve reception facilities for displaced peoples and create more effective administrative processes for asylum claims. One of the big successes of this project has been the building of bridges between newly arrived peoples and the general public of host countries. By continuing to take this work forward, more people will be able to share their experiences and be effectively supported to recover from their trauma and rebuild their lives.  




First published: 27 June 2022