Solving Trauma in Refugee Populations

The Challenge

When refugee trauma survivors experience panic attacks and psychological challenges outside of a therapy setting there are limited tools available to them. To further complicate the situation, many of these survivors do not speak English and have trouble asking and obtaining the help they need. Therapy Tools provides gamified, language-free therapy tools that survivors of trauma and torture can access at home on a mobile device.


The Therapy Tools project represents a collaboration between the University of VermontNESTT for refugee torture and trauma survivors, and GameTheory. The project is SBIR funded through NIH, the National Institute of Health. Many refugee populations seek psychological help to cope effectively with trauma experiences such as torture. NEST has worked to develop a therapeutic program specifically for these individuals, but when a panic attack or other such psychological event occurs their options are limited and lead to more stress. Since many individuals don't speak English, a trip to the emergency room can be a terrifying experience. By embedding the tools they are learning in therapy into an app that does not require any language to operate, they can access powerful coping mechanisms any time at home or work to augment their recovery. 

The Audience: Refugee survivors of trauma and torture with low english literacy.

The Goal: Create a language free app to deliver therapy tools on mobile devices.


The Process

Developing this product has been an exciting and deeply collaborative experience. Working with NESTT we began our discovery stage by learning about what specific therapy tools needed to be included in the app. We focused on using game insights to increase usability and engagement, and to supplement for the lack of written language. Designing app tools that cannot use any written words was an exciting and unique challenge for our team.

As we designed out the features of the app including breathing exercises and distraction games, we tested them weekly with cultural consultants from different refugee communities. These individuals were invaluable in helping us pick art and mechanisms that would work ideally with their cultures. For example, eliminating any depictions of gendered bodies allowed for use by Muslim communities, and checking that the lines on drawings weren't too similar to the written Arabic or Bhutanese languages allowed for the visuals to clearer.  

Currently we have finished an initial version of the app and completed extensive focus groups with a wider set of individuals from these communities. In the fall the app will start a trial run, where it will be used in clinic as part of the standard process to evaluate it's effectiveness and gather feedback for the next iteration. 

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The Results

Our first version of the app provided strong results in testing with refugee populations. Users reported reduced symptoms, and ranked the tool as very helpful making use of it multiple times throughout the day. We're durrently exploring next stage funding to expand the project. To learn more about it, check out this article from UVM on the joint grant.