Tuesday, May 05, 2015

WHO/UNHCR: New Mental Health Guidance For Humanitarian Emergencies



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Over the years one of the topics we’ve returned to often has been the long-term psychological (and physical) effects that disasters, wars, and other humanitarian crises can inflict on a population. 


Last year, in Post-Katrina Heart Attack Rates – Revisited, we saw that heart attack rates in New Orleans remained greatly elevated 6 years after the city was inundated by Hurricane Katrina, while in Post Disaster Stress & Suicide Rates we looked at the psychological aftermath of some major disasters.


The loss of loved ones, personal injury or injury to a loved one, loss of one’s home or livelihood, and in some cases – the  uprooting and destruction of an entire community - can lead to increased rates of PTSD, depression, and even self-destructive behavior (i.e. drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, etc.) in a community.


Victims of personal violence, rescue and medical workers, victims of disasters, terrorism, physical or psychological trauma, and/or a combat zone are also  at risk of suffering some level of PTSD. PTSD symptoms may include anxiety, depression, suicide and PTSD may even lead to drug and alcohol-related disorders. 


While mental health professionals may be available in some settings, in others – particularly in low-resource regions of the world, or in the midst of a crisis – there may be little or no professional psychological support.  


In recent years, however, there has been an emphasis on psychological first aid (PFA) – that can be learned, and administered, by lay persons.


PFA training – which can usually be completed in a day – teaches the lay person how to provide emotional support to those who have recently experienced, or are currently going through, an emotionally traumatic experience.  In 2011, the World Health Organization unveiled a Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers in low-resource settings, which we looked at here.


In 2013, we looked at a far more comprehensive WHO: Guidelines For Post-Trauma Mental Health Care  on post-disaster management of stress-related illness, this time geared to health-care workers for treating the mental health consequences of trauma and loss.


Credit WHO

Number of pages: 273
Publication date: 2013
Languages: English
ISBN: 978 92 4 150540 6


These WHO mhGAP guidelines were developed to provide recommended management strategies for conditions specifically related to stress, including symptoms of acute stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and bereavement.

The guidelines were developed by an independent Guidelines Development Group and inform a new mhGAP module on the Assessment and Management of Conditions Specifically Related to Stress.



Today the WHO has unveiled a new guide on dealing with mental health issues in the midst of a humanitarian emergency, one that builds on the successes and lessons of previous efforts.   This 68-page guide is written specifically for healthcare practitioners working in the midst of a humanitarian crises such as a war zone, or disaster.



WHO/UNHCR issue new guide on mental health in humanitarian emergencies

Joint WHO/UNHCR note for the media

5 May 2015 ¦ Geneva - Worldwide close to 80 million people are currently impacted by humanitarian emergencies arising from natural disasters and armed conflicts, such as those in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, and more recently, Nepal. WHO estimates 5% to 10% of these people suffer from a mental health condition such as depression as a result of the emergency.

People with mental health disorders rarely have access to specialized health workers trained in assessing and managing their conditions. WHO and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have therefore produced a Mental health Gap Action Programme Humanitarian Intervention Guide (mhGAP-HIG), so non-specialist health workers can better identify, assess and manage mental health needs.

The new guide provides practical, first-line management recommendations for mental, neurological and substance use conditions. Contents include modules on assessing and managing conditions such as acute stress, grief, moderate-severe depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, and harmful use of alcohol and drugs.

(Continue . . . . )


Publication details

Number of pages: 68
Publication date: 2015
Languages: English
ISBN: 978 92 4 154892 2




The aftermath of disasters often results in social, economic, and psychological upheavals (see Surviving A Different Kind Of Aftershock). Our short attention span, combined with the news media’s proclivity for moving on to the next big disaster or story, can make us forget that the struggle to rebuild devastated families and communities can take years.


Although a good disaster plan and emergency kit are imperative to get you through the opening hours and days of a disaster, knowing how to help friends, family, and neighbors deal with the psychological effects of a disaster can be equally important.


The CDC also provides a website which contains a number of resources devoted to coping with disasters.

Coping With a Disaster or Traumatic Event

Trauma and Disaster Mental Health Resources

The effects of a disaster, terrorist attack, or other public health emergency can be long-lasting, and the resulting trauma can reverberate even with those not directly affected by the disaster. This page provides general strategies for promoting mental health and resilience. These strategies were developed by various organizations based on experiences in prior disasters.


As does the National Center For PTSD - including videos - on how to provide Psychological First Aid.


Psychological First Aid: Field Operations Guide

Psychological First Aid

For Disaster Responders

Developed jointly with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, PFA is an evidence-informed modular approach for assisting people in the immediate aftermath of disaster and terrorism: to reduce initial distress, and to foster short and long-term adaptive functioning.



A small reminder that not all wounds bleed, not all fractures will show up on an X-ray, and that the best treatment may not always reside inside your first aid kit.

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