Mental Health in Humanitarian Settings

Mental health illnesses are becoming increasingly prevalent, with some experts deeming that we are in a mental health epidemic. Good mental health is associated with other cornerstones of life such as good physical health, which feeds into social and economic outcomes for individuals. In wealthy countries, mental health disorders are attributed to a significant portion of the total burden of ill health (25% in the UK).

Mental health concept

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Humanitarian crises can exacerbate mental health problems by putting additional and often long-term stress onto people and communities. Therefore, there is an urgent need to provide mental health support services in areas experiencing humanitarian emergencies. However, in low to middle-income countries, where humanitarian emergencies are more common, necessary resources to overcoming mental health issues such as appropriate healthcare and social support are more limited and often insufficient and difficult to access.

Mental health and psychosocial support needs to be a priority in humanitarian emergencies and must be considered as vital to treat and issues of physical health. Failure to address psychological issues in humanitarian emergencies is likely to result in long-lasting mental health issues, enduring physical illness, elevated levels of unemployment, lower quality of life, and reduced economic stability. Mental health is a cornerstone to many factors of society, without it, these vital factors are weakened.

The increasing toll of mental health problems

The prevalence of mental health issues is increasing worldwide. Between 2007 and 2017, the prevalence of mental health conditions and substance use disorders across the globe raised by 13%. One in every five years lived with a disability is now attributed to a mental health condition.

While complete global datasets have yet to be established regarding the rates of different mental health conditions, recent data estimates that around 300 million people around the world are currently suffering from anxiety, around 160 million are suffering from major depressive disorder, and roughly 100 million are diagnosed with dysthymia.

We will likely see these figures increase in the coming years due to the impact of the pandemic on mental health. Data collected by the US Census Bureau show that almost half (42%) of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression at the end of 2020, demonstrating an 11% increase from the previous year.

People living in areas undergoing conflict are three times more likely to suffer from mental health conditions than the general public. Rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Red Cross explains that this is also true for those living in areas undergoing other types of humanitarian crises, such as health emergencies and disasters.

Therefore, with the added strain of COVID-19, it is now more important than ever to make mental health and psychosocial support a priority in humanitarian settings. Those who are already at an increased risk of mental health disorders by living through a humanitarian crisis are now facing the added pressure that COVID-19 is putting on communities. Additionally, given that the impact of COVID-19 is unequal and affecting low- and middle-income countries disproportionately, where humanitarian emergencies are more prevalent, it is even more vital that mental health is made a key focus in humanitarian emergencies.

Making mental health a priority

The potential cost of leaving mental health issues untreated, particularly in areas undergoing humanitarian crises, is great. Enduring mental health issues can create a long-lasting negative impact on many factors of society. Without access to appropriate medical care and social aid, people with mental health conditions are left to suffer the long-term negative impacts of their illness which is often completely treatable. This not only decreases the quality of life of the person suffering from the illness, but also puts them at a greater risk of physical illness, unemployment, and poverty.

Further to this, high incidences of untreated mental health issues can also negatively impact the communities that are trying to deal with humanitarian emergencies. It can indirectly reduce the community’s ability to respond effectively to overcome the situation. This can lead to a downward spiral that is hard to break.

In times of humanitarian crises, such as war, natural disasters, and civil unrest, providing care for the population’s mental health can be lifesaving. Mental health is just as important to physical health in terms of the impact it has on a person’s wellbeing and ability to survive a humanitarian crisis.

In low- and middle-income countries, mental health services are often underfunded and under-prioritized regardless of whether a humanitarian emergency is occurring. In times when it is, these services are pushed further down the list of priorities and in some cases, can be non-existent. In general, there are just 2 mental health workers per every 100,000 people.

Given the prevalence of mental health conditions, this nowhere near meets demands for support. Most people in low- and middle-income countries with mental health conditions go without treatment. Government funding plans and priorities must be changed in these countries so that mental health is more of a focus moving forward.

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Last Updated: Sep 20, 2021

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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