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Addressing Mental Health in the midst of a Humanitarian Crisis

It has been estimated that 20% of the population affected by a humanitarian crisis need psychological care, but only 2% of them get access to the care they need. Humanitarian emergencies such as war, natural disasters, or pandemics profoundly disrupt the daily lives of those impacted and result in psychological distress and high risk of mental disorders. With increasing frequency of humanitarian emergencies over the past decade, including the most recent crisis in Afghanistan, there is a pressing need for understanding Refugee Mental Health and having scalable interventions that can be readily delivered to at-risk population groups.

When thinking of a humanitarian crisis, there is a lot of focus which is placed on physical health, physical rehabilitation, employability, education amongst other factors, but very rarely does Mental Health become a highlight in the conversation. War and humanitarian crises are devastating irrespective of who you are, where you come from, or you race, ideology or background - it leaves behind more than just destroyed cities and lost lives. It has long term impacts on the minds and hearts of individuals and that is something which often gets passed down generations and can actually have very long-term, horrific effects, especially on the Mental Health and overall wellbeing of individuals.

When it comes to individuals affected by conflict, they are 3 times more likely than the general population to suffer from Mental Health conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD. If left untreated, these can further create deep hidden wounds which have far reaching and long-term negative impacts for people and communities dealing with humanitarian emergencies. In times of conflict, it is important to provide people support for their Mental Health - this can be just as beneficial and life-saving as providing dressing to wounds or clean water. These wounds to Mental Health during humanitarian emergencies are just as dangerous to a person’s well-being as are physical health injuries. Furthermore, it is important to understand that the impact of trauma and being affected by conflict can not just be vicarious, but also, inter-generational.

To help individuals affected by humanitarian crises to better look after their Mental Health steps need to be taken which need the cooperation of all stakeholders. At the very outset, it is important to have Mental Health services which are adapted both culturally and linguistically as it can help understand cultural nuances better. There is a need to invest in Mental Health and psychosocial support and move to integrate them into all humanitarian responses, both in the short and long term. Early interventions can prove to be very beneficial as they can help prevent distress from developing into serious Mental Health conditions which can have more severe and long-term consequences. Counselling and Psychotherapy (CBT) in combination can prove to be beneficial if made to be the cornerstone in helping in ameliorating symptoms of Mental Health distress amongst populations affected by humanitarian crises.

When it comes to the role of the larger society, it is important to have social integration programs for refugees as it can help to create a sense of connectedness, help to re‐establish social networks, and promote self‐help activities amongst them. Strategies that foster community initiatives encourage a sense of control and engagement in the task of self‐directed recovery, counteracting the inertia, dependency, and inter‐group divisions that characterize many transitional refugee settings. Social programs can also be looked at which can help address general levels of distress as well as more in-depth programs which can help to serve as a less stigmatising pathway to specialist Mental Health services. Additionally, it is helpful to have members of the community such as teachers, workplace professionals, GPs, nurses and community social workers trained in the detection of mental health difficulties of refugees as the are present in their direct environment and can help ensure that no one’s struggles go unnoticed or unaddressed.

We need to understand the individuals who have been affected by a humanitarian crisis have not opted to be refugees, but have instead been compelled to be. Their Mental Health is likely to be impacted by their trauma, loss and grief and they will need help to heal. It is also worth noting that even after they have been moved out of their home country and are at no threat in their host country, that doesn’t necessarily imply that their problems and nightmares can vanish without proper care. Today as the world is witnessing great humanitarian crises, we are surrounded by invisible suffering and agony of individuals displaced from their homes. To help them able to survive, flourish and thrive, it is therefore crucial that Mental health and psychosocial be a priority in humanitarian emergencies and taken as seriously as physical health interventions when planning rehabilitation and support programs.


Written by: Vedica Podar

April, 2022


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