“My Heart Die in Me”: Idioms of Distress and the Development of a Screening Tool for Mental Suffering in Southeast Liberia

Publication Date:

01 Nov 2018


Fabian K, Fannoh J, Washington GG, Geninyan WB, Nyachienga B, Cyrus G, et al. (2018). “My Heart Die in Me”: Idioms of Distress and the Development of a Screening Tool for Mental Suffering in Southeast Liberia. Cult Med Psychiatry. 42(3), 684-703. doi: 10.1007/s11013-018-9581-z



The integration of culturally salient idioms of distress into mental healthcare delivery is essential for effective screening, diagnosis, and treatment. This study systematically explored idioms, explanatory models, and conceptualizations in Maryland County, Liberia to develop a culturally-resonant screening tool for mental distress. We employed a sequential mixed-methods process of: (1) free-lists and semi-structured interviews (n = 20); patient chart reviews (n = 315); (2) pile-sort exercises, (n = 31); and (3) confirmatory focus group discussions (FGDs); (n = 3) from June to December 2017. Free-lists identified 64 idioms of distress, 36 of which were eliminated because they were poorly understood, stigmatizing, irrelevant, or redundant. The remaining 28 terms were used in pile-sort exercises to visualize the interrelatedness of idioms. Confirmatory FDGs occurred before and after the pile-sort exercise to explain findings. Four categories of idioms resulted, the most substantial of which included terms related to the heart and to the brain/mind. The final screening tool took into account 11 idioms and 6 physical symptoms extracted from patient chart reviews. This study provides the framework for culturally resonant mental healthcare by cataloguing language around mental distress and designing an emic screening tool for validation in a clinical setting.


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