I met Amal at a refugee centre in Amman, Jordan. The only activity that seemed to interest this young child was painting. She sat there and painted all day. She and her mother had fled the war in Syria and sought asylum in Jordan.

Probably Amal just wanted to forget the horrors of war.

Amal is amongst the 68 million people worldwide displaced by the vicious cycle of hatred, violence and war. That is the highest count of refugees and displaced people since World War II – four times the population of Netherlands.

About  420 million children were residing in conflict zones in 2017.

Conflicts – and disasters such as storms and floods – not only kill and maim people, but also tear apart their world. They leave lasting scars.

People react naturally. They try to adapt or cope – but there is a limit to what mind can take.

A recent study published in The Lancet highlights such long-term impacts on the mind. In the war zones such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, the average prevalence of mental health conditions is found to be much higher in comparison with populations elsewhere.

The World Health Organization says one in five people in war zones suffer depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

In peacetime, on an average one in every 14 people has a mental health condition. One person commits suicide every 40 seconds in the world. World Health Organization says that among the age group 15-29, suicide is the second biggest reason for death.

Mental health and psychosocial support, especially for children, is critical especially in humanitarian settings. Aid and aid workers contribute to healing people. However, they often miss seeing their invisible injuries. Politicians and planners fail to allocate adequate resources.

It is a ‘silent emergency’.

MHPSS 2019 conference:

The  International Conference on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Crisis Situations held in Amsterdam on 7 and 8 October 2019 (MHPSS 2019 conference) brought together survivors of wars and disasters, relief workers, mental health practitioners, academics, government ministers and senior UN and aid officials from the European Commission. The idea is to make mental health and psychosocial care a priority in humanitarian settings.

In her opening speech, Sigrid Kaag, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation referred to a poem written by the English poet Wilfred Owen during World War I: “No longer will we focus our efforts exclusively on rebuilding bombed-out bridges and providing first aid. We need to acknowledge the soul; that which makes us human.” 100 years since Owen’s death, the world is yet to prioritize matters of the mind in wars and disasters.

In the conference, 24 countries and 10 international aid groups agreed to make mental health and psychosocial support a standard part of humanitarian response. 

The conference played a key role in turning the spotlight on mental health and psychosocial support in crisis settings. However, it was a missed opportunity to secure financial commitments.

Six things I learned at the conference:

  1. Put children and young people first:  Children and young people affected by disasters are extremely vulnerable as well as resourceful. However, they are still undergoing cognitive and emotional development and so they think, react, and may act differently compared with adults. They need special attention.
  1. Mind healing is a marathon: Disasters and wars scar people. Suffering goes on for years. Left unaddressed, such conditions can become irreversible.  Professor Mark Jordans, Research Director at War Child says, “it is necessary to act fast and act long”.
  1. Media and social media can heal people: Media can hurt as well as help healing. Fake news fuel hatred and violence. Media can also help healing and recovery. It can demystify matters of the mind, remove stigma associated to mental illness and make it part of popular conversation. Sharing positive stories inspire survivors. We need artists, clowns and storytellers for that.
  1. Caring of carers: Relief workers and mental health professionals are not immune to the impact of disasters and stories of people caught up in wars and conflicts. There is a growing recognition of vicarious trauma resulting from exposure to survivors’ sad and shocking tales. Aid agencies must take care of their volunteers and staff.
  1. Technology is an enabler – Logistics, communication and healthcare technologies help aid agencies to reach more people who need mental health and psychosocial support. Appropriate technology can be an enabler to reach more people and children, with less time and resources and serve them for longer periods.
  1. The future belongs to those who believe in collaboration: Addressing the matters of the mind is a big task. Doctors and psychologists alone can’t address the unmet needs in humanitarian settings. Various agencies must work together. “This is an idea that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) in Emergency Settings is promoting” says Sarah Harrison, the coordinator.

* Name changed.  

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