Recognizing the importance of building mental health capacity in emergency settings

Recognizing the importance of building mental health capacity in emergency settings

COX’S BAZAR, 10 September 2019 - In emergencies, people are affected in different ways and require different kinds of support. Common mental health conditions increase significantly among emergency affected populations which can take years to heal. As such, international guidelines recommend that psychosocial and mental health support is part of the emergency health response.

WHO is addressing mental health in countries and territories with populations affected by large-scale emergencies across the world, including Bangladesh.

“Recently I had a 35-year-old patient who was suffering from generalized body pain and a burning sensation that wasn’t going away. The symptoms had started several months earlier, after she arrived in Bangladesh with her 5 children. When I asked about her husband, she said that he had been killed in Myanmar right before her eyes - she was very traumatized. I referred her to our psychosocial point for counselling”, shares Dr. Saimur during the Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) training held by WHO in Cox’s Bazar.

Like Dr. Saimur, many health professionals trained to address physical pain are providing healthcare to Rohingya refugees who were exposed to unspeakable events and suffer from anxiety, hopelessness, difficulties eating and sleeping. Without proper training, mental health symptoms and conditions may remain undetected and untreated.

WHO is training non-specialized health care providers in Cox’s Bazar to assess and manage priority mental health conditions. In the past year, WHO has trained 170 healthcare workers on mhGAP with the supporting fund from the European Commission. The WHO Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) aims to reinforce the commitment of governments, international organizations and other stakeholders to increase the allocation of financial and human resources for mental, neurological and substance use disorders (MNS).

“Mental, neurological and substance use disorders are quite prevalent. Such conditions interfere with children’s ability to learn and the ability of adults to take on their many responsibilities. Despite the huge demand for care, there are very few specialized mental health facilities in the whole Cox’s Bazar district”, explains Dr. Jalal Uddin, WHO consultant for mental health based in Cox’s Bazar.

To bridge the gap between available resources and the significant need for services, WHO is scaling up psychosocial and mental health care by training health workers to learn how to recognize the symptoms and to provide first-line support for common mental health conditions. 69% of the primary health care centers in the Rohingya camps now have mgGAP trained staff.

“A few weeks back a 22-year-old Bangladeshi was rushed to my hospital after he fainted in the washroom. He couldn’t speak or walk as half of his body was paralyzed, and his family said he had been very stressed and anxious lately”, Rumana Rafiq, Health Coordinator at HOPE Field Hospital, tells WHO. “Mental health care is very new to me, with this experience I learned that this condition may be psychosomatic mental disorder when mental health conditions can cause physical symptoms”.

Mental health is crucial to the overall social and economic recovery of individuals, societies, and countries during and after emergencies. By addressing such needs, emergencies can also be catalysts for building quality national mental health services and resilience among the affected populations.