Listening post: Dr. Daniel Savin has an ear for the histories of Aurora refugees

“The stigma of mental illness tends to be higher in non-Western parts of the world, so many refugees will be reluctant to seek mental health care,” he said.

AURORA | Dr. Daniel Savin likes to hear stories. Specifically, stories told by refugees who have escaped their war-torn homelands and moved to Colorado in search of a better life.

Daniel Savin
Daniel Savin

Savin, director of the Refugee Mental Health program and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, listens to accounts of hardship and trauma, then helps refugees cope with their emotional struggles.

“I really enjoy this,” said Savin who has worked in the field of psychiatry for more than 25 years.  “I get to hear very interesting stories from people of all walks of life.”

Savin grew up in Michigan and graduated from medical school at the University of Michigan in 1986. When he was at medical school in his mid-20s, Savin identified a specific career path in the field of medicine.

“I was interested in medicine because I thought it was a profession where I could contribute to making people’s lives better, and psychiatry in particular stood out because I love talking to people and listening to their stories, trying to help,” he said.

In 1991, Savin graduated from the University of Colorado’s psychiatry residency program. That year, he left the United States to become a volunteer psychiatrist working on the Thai-Cambodian border with Cambodian refugees. He worked in a refugee camp that accommodated more than 200,000 people, some of whom had mental health issues including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of decades of violence in their homelands.

“Most of the people that I saw also had more severe and chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and also seizure disorder in people who came from homes with domestic violence,” he said.

In 1993, the refugee camp closed and the refugees were sent back to Cambodia. The next year, he worked as a general physician in western Cambodia for Doctors Without Borders. He returned to Colorado in 1994 and continued working with refugees on a volunteer-basis while being a child psychologist at a private practice. Four years later, he traveled to Nicaragua and took a course in tropical medicine, then returned to Cambodia to teach psychiatry to Cambodia natives. In 1999, he returned once again to the University of Colorado and co-founded the Refugee Mental Health program because he saw a need for mental health services for the refugee community living in the Denver metro area.

“I knew there were refugees coming to Denver from former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s and they had a really hard time integrating into the mainstream mental health system,” he said. Other refugees from Bosnia and Iraq also had similar problems.

Today, the program has grown to about 100 refugee patients who are seen by Savin and several psych residents at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Savin said the program is particularly important for Aurora, with its diverse international and refugee population. Aurora’s public school students speak more than 90 languages and the city is home to refugees from countries such as Bhutan, Iraq, Burma, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Many of the people that visit the Refugee Mental Health center in Building 500 on the Anschutz Medical Campus are suffering from insomnia, PTSD, irritability, high-anxiety and fear of going places with large crowds — much of which can be traced back to their personal histories growing up in violent and war-torn countries.

“They’ve also experienced a lot of loss and separation from family members, separations maybe due to running away from violence,” he said.

Savin said there are challenges in the mental health arena that are specific to refugees.

“The stigma of mental illness tends to be higher in non-Western parts of the world, so many refugees will be reluctant to seek mental health care,” he said.

Also, there are language barriers that psychiatrists at the Refugee Mental Health center can only get around by hiring translators.

Many of the refugees are referred to the mental health center by refugee resettlement agencies or primary care clinics, and most do not have much money to pay for mental health services other than through Medicaid, Savin said. The Refugee Mental Health program is primarily funded through grants and the Colorado Refugee Services Program.

Savin says his work is fulfilling, but hard at times. “If someone comes with a lot of pain and suffering from terrible things that have happened in their past life, and may even be happening now, it’s impossible to take those things away,” he said. “All you can do is be there with the person and show them that you’re trying to understand and help them.”

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected] 

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