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Mental health and psychosocial consequences of emergencies – A call for global action

November 2020

By Dick Clomen, Project Manager

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement Project on Addressing Mental Health and Psychosocial Consequences of Armed Conflicts, Natural Disasters and other Emergencies (MOMENT)


Abstract

The current COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the relevance, appropriateness and necessity of Resolution 2, “Addressing mental health and psychosocial needs of people affected by armed conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies”. Adopted unanimously at the 33rd International Conference by States and National Societies, this resolution calls for increased efforts to respond to mental health and psychosocial needs. With the pandemic causing uncertainty, additional stress and anxiety, new light has been shed on mental health and psychosocial needs in the public debate. Now, more than ever, multiple and complex humanitarian needs demonstrate the importance of a holistic and integrated response that addresses the diverse mental health and psychosocial needs of people affected by armed conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies.


The Story

In 2019, for the first time in its history, the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent made a global call for increased efforts to respond to mental health and psychosocial needs. Resolution 2, Addressing mental health and psychosocial needs of people affected by armed conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies was unanimously adopted by States and National Societies during the 33rd International Conference and emphasized that “mental health and psychosocial needs increase extensively as a result of these situations and that pre-existing conditions may resurface or be exacerbated”. Such declarations rang particularly true just a few months after its adoption during the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, which underlined its relevance, appropriateness and necessity.

Early in the pandemic, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement could already see the far-reaching psychological implications of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to prevent it. Worries and fears about catching the virus, losing loved ones and health systems collapsing are still rife among the communities the Red Cross and Red Crescent works to support and within our own staff and volunteer networks. The measures imposed by governments to prevent the spread of the disease, including lockdown restrictions, quarantines, school closures and physical distancing, and their economic and social consequences further increase this distress and the risk of mental health problems. The pandemic has taken an immense mental toll on the millions of people around the world already affected by disasters, conflicts and emergencies.

A recent survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)[1] across seven countries found that 51% of adults perceive that COVID-19 negatively affected their mental health. Almost two thirds agreed that taking care of both mental and physical health has become more important since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. While the demand for mental health and psychosocial support services is increasing, the COVID-19 pandemic has either disrupted or completely halted critical mental health services in more than 90% of countries, according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) survey.

The uncertainty about the disease, how long it will last and what the long-term impacts on health and society will be is causing additional stress and anxiety. Myths and misconceptions are quickly spreading in many communities. The importance of access to correct and timely information cannot be overstated. As always in humanitarian action, trust is critical – trust in information, trust in solutions and trust in the actors providing the solutions.

The new report The greatest need was to be listened to”: The importance of mental health and psychosocial support during COVID-19 contains experiences, insights and recommendations from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on mental health and psychosocial support in relation to the pandemic. Multiple and complex humanitarian needs in contexts such as Bangladesh, Colombia and Yemen demonstrate the importance of a holistic and integrated response that addresses the diverse mental health and psychosocial needs of affected people. The report also shows how working closely with the affected populations and involving them in the response can help increase people’s access to mental health and psychosocial support and contribute to finding the most relevant and sustainable solutions. Volunteers and staff who are involved in the response are deeply affected, as they are exposed to distressing experiences and often work long hours under difficult conditions. If we do not guarantee their mental health and psychosocial well-being, we will not be able to provide adequate and sustainable quality humanitarian services.

On the positive side, COVID-19 has shed new light on mental health and psychosocial needs in the public debate, which helps leverage the political support and additional resources required. The pandemic has also forced us to adapt and innovate so that critical services and care can be maintained.

Today, only 2% of national health budgets and less than 1% of international aid earmarked for health is spent on mental health. WHO estimates that depression and anxiety alone were causing nearly US$ 1 trillion in annual economic productivity loss prior to COVID-19.

Increased investments in mental health and psychosocial support are essential to enable individuals, families and communities to cope effectively with the challenges they face during emergencies such as the current pandemic. COVID-19 has clearly showed that the 33rd International Conference resolution is a relevant and much-needed tool for promoting this critical issue and, more importantly, for supporting increased action on mental health and psychosocial needs by all the actors concerned.

To support the global implementation of these commitments, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has developed a Roadmap for implementation 2020–2023 that will enable strategic partnerships and critical investments for mental health and psychosocial needs. Such initiatives give us hope that, in these most difficult times, efforts to address mental health and psychosocial needs will be prioritized and effectively resourced so that those affected can overcome the challenges they face.


[1] Ipsos, September 2020. This survey was commissioned by the ICRC and carried out by Ipsos across seven countries using a mixed methodology.

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