What is it about the intersection of stress, trauma and early life adversity that primes many people for health and mental health struggles? This question drives the work of Mustafa al’Absi, PhD, a psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health in Duluth, and the director of the Duluth Global Health Research Institute (DGHRI).

He has devoted his career to building an understanding of how stress and trauma influence health, especially when it comes to addiction. al’Absi works in a multidisciplinary fashion with peers in epidemiology, psychiatry and neuroscience to develop new or better ways to help people contend with these experiences.

al’Absi came to the Medical School’s Duluth campus more than 20 years ago, attracted by its mission and commitment to community health and research. He had just earned his doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in biological and clinical psychology with a specialization in behavioral medicine.

“This is my first and only job. I had heard a lot of great things about the University’s environment and the support that the University enjoys from the community,” al’Absi says. “I work with great colleagues pursuing a great mission in the context of great support from the state as a whole.” 

Developing New Interventions Through Academic Medicine 

al’Absi enjoys contributing to the health and wellness of Minnesotans by training future physicians, knowing that the majority stay to practice in the state. 

“I’m proud of what we do in Duluth in terms of having a direct impact on health services and medical services statewide,” he adds. “Our work produces tangible effects and you can see the impact on a day-to-day basis.”  

He finds it gratifying to contribute to work that deepens the understanding of stress and trauma and its interplay with addiction. Academic medicine perfectly suits him, al’Absi says, thanks to its opportunities to ask questions, generate meaningful answers and produce knowledge that helps people with their mental health. 

Currently, al’Absi is focusing on translating many years of collected data and applying it to developing and disseminating interventions. These interventions, including pharmacotherapy or psychological options, aim to help people attain healthy lives by building resilience to the toxic brew of stress, trauma and addiction. 

“We’re trying to discover or develop new approaches that could help enhance the resilience of people who are vulnerable and people who have been exposed to hard situations in their lives, be it traumatic or just ongoing adversity, especially during childhood,” he says. 

Gaining Inspiration from Individuals’ Resilience

al’Absi finds inspiration and motivation from working with people who have endured significant trauma and stress. He believes there is a lot to learn from their experiences. 

“I’m inspired by human resilience,” he says. “We read, work, and interact with individuals who are so vulnerable or have been exposed to so much trauma and stress, yet you see them overcome. They cope, they thrive, they continue living. We have a lot to learn and be inspired by when we work in such a context.”