Religiousness Buffers Negative Effects of War Trauma in Refugees


In this study by Mölsä and colleagues, they found that a buffering role of religiousness following exposure to severe war trauma.

The results from their study support the view that both past traumatic experiences and present immigration-related stressors form a risk for refugees’ mental health. Both the nature of traumatic stress and type of acculturation indicators determined whether the older Somalian refugees showed posttraumatic stress, depressive, psychological distress, or somatization symptoms. While severe everyday discrimination formed a general risk for mental health, other contributing mechanisms may be symptom-specific. As hypothesized, refugees with high religiousness did not show increased posttraumatic stress and somatization symptoms despite having been exposed to severe war trauma, thus demonstrating a buffering role of religiousness.


Article Title: 

Mental health among older refugees: the role of trauma, discrimination, and religiousness (Pay Wall)




Mulki Mölsä, Saija Kuittinen, Marja Tiilikainen, Marja-Liisa Honkasaloe, and Raija-Leena Punamäki




University of Helsinki, National Institute for Health and Welfare, University of Tampere, and University of Turku, Finland




The researchers examined how past traumatic stress and present acculturation indicators, and discrimination are associated with mental health among older Somalis in Finland, and tested whether religiousness can buffer their mental health from severe war trauma. They indicated that traumatic stress involves both war trauma and childhood adversity, and that acculturation indices are legal status, length of time in Finland, and language proficiency. Discrimination included perception of exclusion, stereotyping, everyday discrimination in work and society, and threats and harassment.

First, they examined how exposure to past war trauma and childhood adversity, present acculturation, and perceived discrimination and racism were associated with symptoms of posttraumatic stress, depression, psychological distress, and somatization.

Second, to display the buffering function of religiousness, they hypothesized that higher levels of war trauma would not be associated with higher levels of mental health problems among refugees who show high religiousness. On the contrary, there would be an association between war trauma and mental health symptoms among those with low religiousness.





The participants of this study were elderly Somalis living in Finland as refugees. The researchers noted that past research has shown that Somalis experience high levels of prejudice and racism in Finland, and everyday contacts and friendships with Finns are rare. The researchers remarked that research is available on risk factors contributing to mental health problems among Somali refugees, but less is known about possible protective factors and resources. They add that religiousness is a culturally salient protector of mental health, as it provides multiple ways of making sense, consoling, and affiliating with others that are all considered beneficial in recovery from trauma.




The researchers tested 128 older (50–85 years) Somalis who were living in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Participants were interviewed for about two hours on average. About a half (48%) of participants were illiterate, and the research assistants read aloud the questions and wrote the answers for all. The interviews included measures of discrimination and racism, past traumatic stress, acculturation indices, posttraumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, psychological distress, and somatization symptoms.


ScientiFix tip: The researchers noted there were issues with some of the measures they used. They noted limitations with their measures of acculturation, child adversity scale, religiousness, and that they were not able to assess contextual factors such as ethnic density (number of ethnic residents in the neighborhood), or education and employment opportunities for older Somalis in Finland. Some of these limitations were due to the fact their measures likely would have required cultural modification. They gave a good example to demonstrate this: Western psychology considers losses of close persons or parental illnesses traumatic, whereas in Somali culture extended family takes care of a child and parental loss may not automatically indicate adversity. This highlights an important problem with measures when conducting cross-cultural studies. Measures should be reassessed and adapted appropriately to account for cultural or societal differences between the population the original measures were developed for and the target populations. Otherwise, this runs of the risk of reducing the measure’s validity, making their results less meaningful, relevant, or accurate.


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