Mental healthcare a core part of MSF's emergency aid

October 6, 2010

Mental healthcare a core part of MSF's emergency aid

Mdecins Sans Frontieres provides 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 a cholera patient, performing an emergency cesarean section. But for more than 20 years, MSF has also been caring for patients’ mental health.

For people who have lived through terrible events, the psychological consequences can be severe. Depression and anxiety can immobilize them, at just the time when they need to take action for themselves and their families.

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, specialized 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.

People sought help for many reasons — the agonizing 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.

The following is a series of snapshots from MSF mental health programs in Kashmir, Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. These snapshots sketch some of the complex and painful issues confronted by those who seek counselling, as well as some of the challenges encountered by MSF in providing these services.

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