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My journey from civil war to global health, via AuthorAID

By AuthorAID Team | Aug. 11, 2015  | Researcher Experience

Dr Jibril Handuleh is physician, researcher and lecturer with dual nationality in Somalia and Djibouti. After training as a general practitioner in his homeland, he was introduced to AuthorAID. Dr Handuleh here describes how AuthorAID helped him overcome multiple challenges to publish 15 papers over the course of two years, in some of the world’s most widely-read medical journals.

Somalia’s wars, droughts and famines are well known, but less attention is paid to how these problems undermine the nation’s mental health. Aside from the damage wrought to bodies and property, many Somalian minds bear scars from a two-decade civil war that ended in 1991, and continuing economic precarity. This situation has been exacerbated by the disruption of healthcare services, with hospitals destroyed and doctors fleeing for safer countries.

I was born and grew up in exile in Saudi Arabia, eventually returning to study medicine once stability had returned. During my training, the university in my hometown of Borama had no local teaching staff or exams in psychiatry, despite the fact that two of every five Somalians are estimated to suffer from mental health problems.

Somalians with psychiatric disorders are often stigmatized, abused and literally imprisoned in their homes. Mentally ill people can become a huge burden, as families don’t know how to deal with severely disturbed or violent relatives. Many are therefore chained up or put into prison in order to control them.

Traditional healing methods can be just as repressive, with patients having their heads dunked repeatedly into water almost to the point of drowning, in an attempt to force out harmful jinns (magical spirits).

Moreover, even when they receive medical help, patients are often misdiagnosed with exclusively physical rather than psychiatric conditions. Bipolar and schizophrenic Somalians are commonly presumed to have typhoid fever, and therefore mistakenly prescribed antibiotics that are both expensive and ineffective.

These challenges prompted the Somalian diaspora in Europe to collaborate with the Borama community to establish our first psychiatric unit. Central to the project was the hiring of 10 female healthcare workers, who have run individual and group therapy sessions, and encouraged local community leaders to reduce mental health stigma.

The clinic opened in 2012 – the same year I was introduced to AuthorAID. Following registration, the platform quickly became part of my daily writing process. It was a key resource in my attempts to communicate the challenges and successes of African healthcare provision. While beginning to publish my first paper, AuthorAID helped me secure access to online literature and research funding – crucial in a country like Somalia where academic infrastructure and the internet itself is weak.

I was in dire need of a mentor for academic publication, and AuthorAID helped me start science writing from scratch. I learned how to draft and edit a paper, submit it to a journal, and get it published. Within two years, I had papers accepted at three conferences and was able to publish over 15 articles in academic journals, two of which were accepted by leading international mental health journals. The American Journal of Psychiatry published my article on psychiatry hospital practice and The Lancet Psychiatry published my article on mental health services in Somaliland, a territory in Northern Somalia.

Apart from psychiatry, my research has also covered e-health in fragile states, chronic diseases and conflict-health interactions, taking Somalia as a case study. I have worked with researchers from Tulane University, Oxford University, Harvard, the Karolinska Institute and King’s College London. After becoming the first academic to publish from post-conflict Somalia with the assistance of AuthorAID, I was chosen as a Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Health at King’s College London, funded by the King’s THET Somaliland Partnership (KTSP).

In addition to my own research, I have used AuthorAID to educate my students and peers. I have run two workshops with the platform’s online resources for my colleagues, and also set up a newsletter at Amoud University’s College of Health Sciences, where I lecture and practice medicine. The newsletter raises medical students’ awareness of and interest in scientific writing, which helps deepen their training.

Finally, AuthorAID mentorship is an area of great support, and I’m excited about building a lifelong academic relationship once someone volunteers to support me. Through the resources and expertise provided by other users, I increased my chances of winning a master’s degree scholarship. Motivation letters became easier to write and more compelling and I recently won admission to an MSc in International Health at Germany’s Heidelberg University.

My studies will focus on public health training in low- and middle-income countries that receive aid from the German government. Somalia has the world’s highest maternal mortality in the world, and among the highest infant mortality. I hope to use the MSc as a platform for making lasting changes to these inequalities, as Heidelberg is one of the leading centres of global health research.

My plan is to become a researcher, academic and science communication mentor for my students, academics and beyond in my country, Africa and the rest of the world. I want to inspire those who come from a similar socioeconomic background to do more and join the scientific world.

By collaborating with peers in African universities, I hope to build the continent’s academic publishing capacity, fighting against academic fraud and raising our reputation in the global publication arena. AuthorAID is an essential way to develop my own potential and that of those around me.

This story was first published on the PLOS Blog Translational Global Health.

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