A new study shows that a humanitarian program to improve the mental health of adolescents affected by the Syrian war has a biological benefit: For participants in the program, it decreased levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) by a third.
The study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, is the first to use an objective biomarker — in this case, hair cortisol — to assess the impact of a mental-health intervention for war-affected youth. By measuring the cortisol concentrations in hair samples, the researchers corroborated the youths’ self-reporting of stress and psychosocial wellbeing.
“Our work demonstrates the utility in using stress biomarkers for tracking physiological changes in response to interventions over time. Through hair cortisol, we can examine the biological signature of past trauma, current insecurity, and stress-alleviating interventions,” said Catherine Panter-Brick, professor of anthropology, health, and global affairs at Yale University, and the study’s co-author and principal investigator. “We’ve shown that effective psychosocial interventions can have a physiological benefit, protecting the health and development of young people who live through war and forced displacement.”