5.4. Mental health and psychosocial support

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atencion salud mentalThe aftermath of emergencies and disasters can produce psychosocial disturbances that sometimes exceed a population’s capacity to manage or cope. The victims themselves are not the only ones affected. Health workers, search and rescue groups and other first responders, volunteers, and others who assist in response efforts also are often subjected to an enormous emotional burden in carrying out their tasks.

Therefore, mental health and psychosocial support should target both the affected population and those involved in the response. The general lines of action of a mental health plan for emergencies include:

  • Rapid preliminary assessment of mental health issues and needs, in order to define a specific intervention strategy.
  • Intervention measures, which may be conducted not only by specialized personnel, but also by primary health care workers, volunteers, rescue and humanitarian aid personnel, and community agents who have direct contact with the population and can provide initial psychological assistance in the critical period.
  • Priority care for groups that are at risk or highly vulnerable, and for the special needs population.
  • Training on basic principles of psychosocial care, crisis intervention, and early emotional assistance for those in close contact with victims and survivors.
  • Mass communication and education for health: information and guidance regarding the emergency, its context, aid activities, and measures that should be adopted for self-protection, all of which is essential to promote calm and reduce fear and grief.
  • Intersectoral and interinstitutional coordination: This requires active participation by all the entities responsible for assistance activities.
  • Provide health services to address the needs of those affected, and take psychological and social considerations into account when providing general health services.
  • Prevent and tackle problems involving the mental health and psychosocial well-being of staff and volunteers.
  • Promote community organization, training of community agents, social participation, and self-reliance.
  • Institute a system to record information, indicators, and monitoring.
  • Consider psychosocial needs and respect local cultural practices when planning each assistance activity (refuges, food, water supply and sanitation).
  • Mental health actions should be consistent with the sectoral and State-level emergency plans.

Several practical publications offer guidance on mental health issues in disaster situations: Consult the WHO publication Psychological first aid: guide for field workers and the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, which provides guidelines on recommended social support practices to protect and support mental health and psychosocial well-being in the initial stage of an emergency.

For a more in-depth look at the many aspects of mental health and psychosocial support, with a focus on the Caribbean, consult Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Disaster Situations in the Caribbean.