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The beginning of the pandemic created incredibly high stress and poor mental health for many individuals and families, overwhelming mental healthcare professionals as they tried to help families cope with pandemic fears and isolation. 

A Durham-based organization, Together for Resilient Youth (TRY), partnered with Assistant Professor Eve Puffer’s lab at the Duke Global Health Institute to develop Coping Together, a virtual family-strengthening program to help families in NC manage the increased levels of pandemic-related stress. 

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Mahgul Mansoor

Mahgul Mansoor, who recently earned her master of science in global health from Duke, conducted her thesis research on how this program was delivered and received. 

“I am looking at features of how enjoyable and beneficial this program was for the families in our community, what participants thought of the virtual delivery, and how feasible it was to deliver this program through community health workers,” Mansoor said. 

Mansoor’s undergraduate degree in biology meant that she spent a lot of her time in laboratories. Although she appreciated the work, she found its impact to be too abstract and felt too isolated from what was happening in the world. 

“That’s when I became interested in neurodevelopment, as I could understand it better with respect to the whole human,” she said. “I began exploring this path as a fieldwork intern on a project studying the intergenerational inheritance of trauma.”

In that project, Mansoor screened orphaned children in Pakistan for depression and anxiety and found higher levels of both in that population. It was a pivotal moment in her career. 

“The helplessness I felt in that moment is what prompted me to explore accessible mental health program development and implementation through a global health career,” she said.

Mansoor came to Duke for her master’s and began studying in Puffer’s lab, where she was introduced to the Coping Together program, the topic that ultimately became the center of her thesis research. 

Coping Together relied on community health workers (CHWs) to deliver the program to caregivers and youth participants. 

“By using CHWs from TRY instead of mental health specialists to deliver this program, we aimed to address the gap between service demand and provider availability,” Mansoor said. “Task-sharing programs tend to be effective because CHWs are well-embedded within their communities and thus are the experts of knowing what their communities’ needs are and at times already serve as sorts of natural counselors in their roles.”

Mansoor’s thesis research focused on the end outcome of the program for families. During the final phase of data collection, she unexpectedly encountered one of the most memorable moments of her career. 

While conducting interviews, Mansoor would ask the caregivers and youth participants what their favorite part of the program was. In one of those sessions, one of the youth participants asked the same question back to her. 

“I laughed, took a pause, and then told the youth that it was in fact these chats that I loved the most,” Mansoor said. “Qualitative data collection has added such a rich dimension of insight to my work, and it has been such a privilege to speak to families about their experiences and learn directly from the community that I seek to support.”

Mansoor received a 2021- 2022 Dean’s Research Award for Master’s Students, which provides recipients with funds to purchase supplies to support their research. The award allowed Mansoor to use a professional transcript service for all of the data collected through interviews and focus group sessions that she used in her thesis work. 

“This process has provided me with accurate and efficient transcripts, such that it represents participants' voices in their own words and allows me to carry out my analysis in a way that does justice to their perspectives,” she said. “Additionally, it supported the dissemination of my work at the Eighth Annual Triangle Global Health Conference. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to share how this program used an innovative and adaptive approach to address pandemic-related challenges.”

Through her thesis work, Mansoor also realized the need to balance what she has been taught in academic settings and what she is experiencing in her fieldwork and research. 

“Academia has taught me how to conduct my research using best practices in ethics and methodology theoretically,” she said. “But it is my fieldwork that has truly humbled me, challenging my preconceived biases and my ability to apply theory.”