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Mental Health: Providing care to survivors of emergencies

We have been caring for patients’ mental health for more than 20 years. Our teams provide emergency medical aid in catastrophes all over the world, armed conflicts natural disasters, famines and epidemics.

MSF doctors and nurses are often seen treating physical ailments: bandaging the war-wounded, rehydrating, performing an emergency cesarean section.

But for people who have lived through terrible events, the psychological consequences can be severe.

Depression and anxiety

People who have lived through crises can be immobilised by depression and anxiety, at just the time when they need to take action for themselves and their families.

Mental healthcare is also part of services for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, nutrition, sexual violence and during disease outbreaks and disasters.

MSF’s mental healthcare aims primarily to reduce people’s symptoms and improve their ability to function. Often this work is done by local counsellors specially trained by MSF. MSF psychologists or psychiatrists provide technical support and clinical supervision.

When appropriate, MSF’s counselling services may reinforce or complement mental healthcare approaches that already exist in the local community.

At the same time, specialised clinicians treat severe mental illness. But severe illness accounts for a minority of the cases that MSF sees.

Needs are high, and MSF continues to expand its mental health programs. Last year, MSF’s mental health teams performed more than 100,000 consultations worldwide.

Increasing capacity

People sought help for many reasons — the agonising loss of a child in an earthquake, the trauma of sexual violence, getting caught up in a violent conflict. MSF mental health workers listened to their stories and helped them find ways to cope and move on with their lives.

Treating severely disturbed people remains a challenge for MSF teams, given the complexity of managing psychiatric drugs and medication.

Increasing teams’ capacity to treat these illnesses remains a priority for MSF.

Setting up mental health care programmes in emergency situations is not straightforward, especially when violence and trauma are ongoing and no ‘cure’ is, therefore, possible.

Sometimes it is difficult to guarantee continuity of care in unstable and dangerous settings.

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