A visiting scholar from the University of New South Wales, Dr. Alvin Kuowei Tay brings extensive experience with refugees suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to the Global Mental Health (GMH) Lab at Teachers College. Founded by Dr. Tay’s faculty host and Dr. Helen Verdeli, the Lab has worked for years with under-resourced populations in developing countries.
Dr. Tay was testing a novel psychosocial therapy he developed in Bangladesh with the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCR) when he discovered the Lab through its work with Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution by Myanmar’s government. For the past three years, in collaboration with UNHC, the Lab has been evaluating the effectiveness of Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) for refugees like the Rohingya. Now, Dr. Tay is contributing his expertise to the Lab’s work on sustainable mental health solutions for refugee populations. Even though he admits that there will probably never be enough mental health professionals to meet the needs of the world’s refugees, he believes this research is still critical to the ongoing effort.
Dr. Tay has always been interested in working with refugees, but how he planned to do so has changed significantly over the years. Having abandoned studies in law, he ended up pursuing a masters (in forensic/clinical psychology) followed by a doctorate in medicine (with a focus on psychiatric epidemiology) at the South-western Clinical School of the University of New South Wales. It was there that Dr. Tay began working with refugees from West Papua and Papua New Guinea. He also researched post-conflict mental health in East Timor, the site of genocide perpetrated by the Indonesian government prior to the country’s independence in 2002. Since then, Dr. Tay has been working in Bangladesh and Malaysia with refugees from the Rohingya, Chin, and Kachin ethnic groups. More recently, as a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australia Clinical Fellow, Dr. Tay devoted time to designing and leading epidemiological and clinical research studies, and testing adapted forms of psycho-social therapies in low-resource and emergency contexts based on the work he has conducted since 2014.
It was in Australia that Dr. Tay initiated his current course of study and work on global and refugee mental health. While writing reports for the immigration services in Australia as an expert psychologist, he witnessed how the process of seeking asylum can re-traumatize refugees. At a time when governments in wealthy nations are under tremendous popular pressure to keep migrant numbers low, asylum applicants come under a great deal of scrutiny by immigration officials. Oftentimes, refugees are forced to undergo repeated interrogations and hearings while awaiting final decisions in detention centers with very limited services and amenities. In addition, Immigration officials doggedly pursue discrepancies in applicants’ testimonies in order to justify deportation. However, many refugees suffer from memory problems triggered by the initial trauma of fleeing their home countries; these problems can make them more likely to make innocent mistakes during hearings. Adding to this, the records in the refugee’s home country may be incorrect, which may lead to misunderstandings during the testimonies. All of these factors play a major part not only in whether or not a refugee is deported, but also how the entire experience impacts the person going forward.
With these research experiences, it made sense then for Dr. Tay to seek out the GMH Lab. The Lab’s unique focus on mental health for displaced populations, as well as its dedication to addressing gaps in mental health resources for said populations drew Dr. Tay to Teachers College. “Dr. Verdeli’s Lab is one of the few labs that specifically focuses on mental health in developing countries [and] in post-conflict countries,” he explained. Refugee populations have experiences that span many different kinds of trauma.
Dr. Tay is in his second semester at Teachers College. In addition, he is working with the United Nations at their headquarters in Manhattan. He looks forward to taking more time to explore Teachers College and its programs before he returns to Australia.