Mental health and psychosocial support
Addressing the needs of people affected by the Syrian crisis
As the Syrian crisis enters its 9th year, the scale and severity of humanitarian needs across the country remain overwhelming. Increasingly, we see the toll armed conflicts, unforeseen disasters and other emergencies take on the mental health and the psycho-social wellbeing of people. Protracted crises create a wide range of problems, which are experienced at the individual, family, community and societal levels. Conflicts such as the Syrian crisis, erode the protection and support systems normally available, the risks of mental health problems increase, and pre-existing conditions tend to be amplified. Recognising and appropriately treating mental health among refugees can be particularly challenging due to different languages and cultures, as well as the specific stressors associated with displacement.
To bring attention to the urgent mental health psychosocial support needs in Syria and the region, on 14 March 2019 the Danish Red Cross hosted a conference aimed at exploring the psychological impact of the conflict, the work done by civil society actors, and what still remains to be done. The event was held alongside the Brussels III Conference, hosted by the EU and the United Nations to promote a lasting political solution to the Syrian crisis and mobilise international support.
In his introduction, Anders Ladekarl, Secretary General of the Danish Red Cross, emphasised the importance of the psychological and emotional wellbeing of people, a priority for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement since it was first born over 150 years ago. Mental health and psychosocial wellbeing are critical to daily functioning and survival. When these needs are not addressed, they have far-reaching and long-term impacts on individuals and entire societies. “Regrettably, mental health and psychosocial responses are generally under-prioritised and underfunded, creating a considerable barrier to people getting the help they need”, he underlined.
With unparalleled access through its network of 10,000 volunteers, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is the main humanitarian actor in the country, providing critical mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) alongside other emergency relief and longer-term development programmes. Dr Faiza Alabdullah, SARC MHPSS manager, shared how 13 community centres, 49 mobile teams, and 750 psychosocial support staff and volunteers work to provide assistance to children and their families through a variety of activities, including workshops, vocational training, and psychological first aid. Current SARC efforts focus on outreach to vulnerable groups in recently accessible areas, as well as mainstreaming MHPSS across their services, such as disaster management, primary health care, and physiotherapy.
The importance of including MHPSS in emergency responses was reiterated by Middle East and North Africa MHPSS Regional Coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Dr Renato Oliveira. He shared insight into the ICRC’s “Helping the Helpers programme”, focused on providing psychosocial support and training to first responders in Syria, as well as increasing their capacities to provide MHPSS themselves. So far, 5,017 volunteers have been reached through 470 peer support sessions. “We need to be very close to the communities, this means that they need to be incorporated in the process – from the assessment phase, to the care offered to people that need it”, he underlined. “There is no point in providing physical care and leaving mental health needs are unattended”, he added. “They go hand in hand. Both are important for the wellbeing of those affected by conflict.”
“We need new ways of working”, Mr Ladekarl concluded. “We need to address the root causes and to engage and equip the people affected – individuals, families, and communities”. He added that the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of humanitarian staff and volunteers is deeply affected in situations of conflict and protracted crises. Organisational support systems should promote the safety and well-being of their staff and personnel, address stressors, encourage self-care and offer a range of resources such as peer support.
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