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New study abroad program focuses on post-conflict mental health

Northwestern undergrads study health in transition in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina

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Students abroad
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EVANSTON - With the creation of a new study abroad program, Northwestern University undergraduates have a rare opportunity to learn about the collective psychological impacts of war and how communities, once at odds, hope to heal.

The program, which kicked off during the summer quarter, introduces students to the healthcare systems of the former Yugoslavia, where post-conflict mental health services first emerged as a component of humanitarian aid. 

“For those interested in post-conflict countries, this is an incredible opportunity to learn firsthand about the process of rebuilding political and social connections between opposing communities,” said Peter Locke, the architect of the new study abroad program and an assistant professor of instruction in the department of anthropology. 

War in the former Yugoslavia erupted in 1991, following the weakening of communism, the fall of the Soviet Union and a rise in ethno-nationalist politics. A diverse and often fractious federation originally assembled in the first half of the 20th century, Yugoslavia splintered into several smaller nations, including Serbia and neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Prior to the wars in Yugoslavia, humanitarian intervention and international aid in post-conflict countries rarely addressed one of the most devastating effects of war -- psychological trauma. 

Two decades later, as aid workers and governments around the world struggle to address the needs of a growing population affected by war and unrest, the former Yugoslavia provides important lessons in the field.

“The process is extremely long, fraught and ambiguous,” said Locke, who organized the program, which is administered by the Office of International Program Development. “The idea here is to prepare the next generation of humanitarians and aid workers in a new way, so they are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.” 

Northwestern senior De’Sean Weber, an anthropology major and an aspiring doctor, spent eight weeks studying in Belgrade and Sarajevo over the summer. 

“What struck me the most was the resilience of some individuals,” Weber said. “It was a terrible war. It happened. But people in and beyond the medical community are focused on the future and determined to rebuild bridges.”

“Meanwhile, they are working to destigmatize mental health, and that is truly refreshing,” added Weber, who has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to return to the region and conduct his own research.

“I’m interested in the determinants – factors including personality traits, family and social support systems and employment – that are associated with those individuals who are exposed to great trauma and do not subsequently suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.” 

The idea here is to prepare the next generation of humanitarians and aid workers in a new way, so they are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Peter Locke
Assistant professor

Students spent the first four weeks at the University of Belgrade, in Serbia’s capital city, and the second four weeks at the University of Sarajevo, in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

At their host universities, as well as through visits to a range of local healthcare, psychosocial support and civil society organizations,  students learned about healthcare systems and policies in the region and the specific public health challenges facing these post-socialist and post-conflict societies. 

The former Yugoslavia is a rare mélange of peoples and histories and a crossroads between East and West, said Locke, where Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians have lived together—sometimes in conflict—for centuries.

The program in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is the newest offering from the Office of International Program Development, which has developed public health programs in China, South Africa, Tanzania, Israel, France, Tanzania, Cuba and Mexico.  

The minor in global health, with close to 300 students, combines an on-campus curriculum with an international public health requirement.   

The public health study abroad programs are open to all Northwestern students. 

“Each program abroad focuses on a theme of specific interest and relevance to the country or region, such as HIV/AIDS in South Africa, traditional Chinese medicine, medical delivery to diverse populations in Israel, socialized medicine in Cuba and in our newest program, post-conflict mental health in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said Dévora Grynspan, director of International Program Development and vice president for international relations.

“We had long been interested in a program focusing on mental health, and we were very lucky that the hiring of Peter Locke into our faculty brought us someone who is not only an expert in the field but who has also worked in Bosnia and has an extensive network of contacts. “ 

To learn more about the program and to apply, visit the International Program Development website.

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