Outbreaks and crises, whether natural disasters, pandemics, armed conflicts, among others, can have profound and lasting impacts on the mental health and well-being of affected communities.
The toll of such events extends beyond physical health concerns and encompasses the psychological and emotional burdens borne by individuals and communities.
In times of outbreaks and crises, the focus has often been on immediate medical responses, containment strategies, relief supplies, and vaccine distribution. While these are undoubtedly critical, there is an equally vital aspect that should not be overlooked: mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS).
The current global health landscape, marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and other crises, underscores the urgency to integrate MHPSS into future responses. Disease outbreaks, such as Ebola, Marburg, and the Covid-19 pandemic, have garnered significant public health attention and awareness.
In contrast, other crises such as conflicts, landslides and floods have not received the same level of attention, which has affected the prioritization of MHPSS services.
The ministry of Health, in collaboration with international organizations and partners, plays a critical role in providing excellent healthcare services, including MHPSS, during disease outbreaks and pandemics. However, there has been concerns about the ministry’s limited involvement in addressing MHPSS needs in other non-disease-related crises, such as internal conflicts in the Karamoja region, landslides in Bududa, and floods in Kasese district.
By broadening the scope of MHPSS to encompass these situations, we can better serve the holistic needs of our citizens, fostering resilience and recovery not only from physical hardships, but also from the emotional toll of these devastating events, ultimately building a stronger and more empathetic nation.
Using Sudan as an example - a nation marked by a long history of conflict and political instability - we see the critical need for MHPSS of non-disease crisis Sudan has grappled with. A protracted and devastating conflict, particularly in the regions of Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile, has unleashed a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions.
While the world may be aware of physical devastation— displacement, hunger, and violence — not much is known about the MHPSS challenges that have emerged as a tragic consequence of this ongoing war.
In these war-torn regions, individuals and communities grapple with profound psychological scars left by years of violence, displacement, and uncertainty. Survivors of conflict often experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.
Children are particularly vulnerable, with many having witnessed or experienced atrocities, which can lead to long-term psychological and emotional challenges. However, despite this dire need, access to MHPSS services in conflict zones remains severely limited due to security concerns, resource constraints, and infrastructure damage.
This lack of support further perpetuates the cycle of trauma and hinders the long- term recovery and resilience-building efforts of the affected populations. Initiatives such as trauma-informed care, community-based support networks, and creative therapies like art and storytelling can serve as crucial lifelines for individuals in war-torn regions.
These initiatives not only provide psychological healing but also contribute to rebuilding a sense of community and hope amidst devastation. During outbreaks and crises, invisible wounds borne by individuals and communities are often overshadowed by immediate and tangible challenges.
However, MHPSS can play a pivotal role in helping communities rebuild, recover and thrive in the face of adversity. The post-crisis period, in the context of MHPSS, is a critical phase characterized by recovery, healing and resilience- building.
It extends beyond the immediate aftermath of a crisis, whether it is a natural disaster, armed conflict, or public health emergency. During this phase, communities and individuals begin to rebuild their lives and confront the long-term psychological and emotional impact of the crisis.
MHPSS interventions during this period are essential to address trauma, grief, and other mental health challenges that may have emerged or intensified as a result of the crisis. This involves providing counselling, therapy, and support services to help individuals and communities regain a sense of normalcy, reconnect with their social networks, and develop coping mechanisms for future challenges.
The post-crisis period is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of addressing mental well- being as an integral part of recovery and rebuilding efforts.
By recognizing the human aspect of emergencies, integrating MHPSS into responses to outbreaks and crises is not just a recommendation; it is a necessity.
These services are not merely adjuncts to crisis response, but are essential components of a holistic approach to disaster recovery — one that values the emotional and psychological well-being of every individual and community affected by the storm.
As we move forward in an ever-changing world, let us remember that the strength of our response to any crisis lies not only in the medical tools we deploy, but also in the compassion and care we extend to one another. By embracing MHPSS integration, we pave the way for a more resilient, empathetic, and supportive future for the unknown.
The writer is a mental health and psychosocial support expert.