Angela Nickerson

By understanding the factors that underlie refugee mental health, we can improve psychological treatments and help refugees adapt to life in Australia.
The world is witnessing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Angela Nickerson is making sure people forced to flee from their homes can overcome psychological trauma.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 51 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2013.

It’s the largest number of refugees globally since World War II.

“This is an unprecedented time for refugees around the world,” says clinical psychologist Dr Angela Nickerson, who leads the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program at the UNSW School of Psychology. “It really is a critical public health priority.”

A major challenge for countries accepting refugees is helping them overcome traumatic experiences, such as witnessing the deaths of loved ones, torture, or being threatened with death themselves, says Nickerson.

Current research suggests one in three refugees develop a psychological disorder. Nickerson is particularly interested in the two out of three who overcome adversity and find ways to effectively manage their emotions.

“We want to figure out what strategies these people are using that help them to adapt and move forward,” she says.  

With funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Nickerson’s lab is one of the first in the world to use experimental methodologies to study emotional regulation in refugees.

This involves inviting refugees with and without post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to her lab, and having them try different emotion regulation strategies while measuring their emotional responses and psychophysiological reactions. 

She’s found evidence that refugees who are able to employ a strategy known as cognitive reappraisal in response to fearful emotions report reduced intrusive memories compared to individuals who try to suppress these emotions altogether – something people with PTSD commonly do. 

“Cognitive reappraisal is thinking ‘this is just an image, and it can’t hurt me’. It’s thinking about a situation in a more helpful way that reduces psychological distress,” she says.

By comparing the experiences of refugees with varying levels of psychological distress, Nickerson is developing innovative interventions to improve health outcomes. 

The 2014 NSW Tall Poppy winner is also leading a study tracking the resettlement experiences of refugees over a 3-year period, to see how well they’re integrating into the community.

The objective of the project is to generate research outcomes with practical implications for improved policy development and service delivery.

Nickerson’s programs are conducted in a variety of languages, meaning they are applicable to a wide range of refugee populations. While this introduces challenges relating to translation and cultural variation, the research provides important information about the psychological impact of the refugee experience. 

The goal of her research, she says, is to identify common factors in the refugee experience that span cultural groups to influence their mental health.

“By working with any refugee who walks through our door, or logs on to our website, our studies will have international application.”

“The research can be adaptable across contexts and populations, and in response to new international conflicts,” she says, adding that: “the resilience, strength and generosity of the participants we work with is a continuous source of inspiration.”