Mental health for all: providing psychosocial support to displaced people

10 October 2022

mental health and psychosocial support for all
A JRS staff member visiting a refugee woman whose child has a serious health condition. Kerfi site, Eastern Chad.

Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) is an increasingly fundamental approach to humanitarian work that seeks to prioritise and strengthen people’s mental and physical wellbeing. It acknowledges that everyone has a right to health and that we must not forget people in vulnerable and marginalized conditions.

For instance, at the shelters at the US/ Mexico border where JRS Mental Health Clinician Georgina Sanchez works, forcibly displaced people often arrive tired, scared, and confused. After traveling for hundreds of kilometers, they are met with wholly unfamiliar bureaucratic processes and Georgina, together with her team, help them cope with the stressful situation.

Trying to convey the essence of her work, Georgina affirms: “understanding is healing.” An essential part of her job is indeed to make sure people understand what she is doing and how she may help: “I explain that I want to teach them some mindfulness techniques so they can reach some balance, and then they can be more focused on the information they are going to receive.”

Most importantly, Georgina offers presence, understanding, and love to people in a vulnerable situation: “I approach them trying to be respectful, but most of all trying to normalise a little bit what is happening, so that they can feel in a more friendly environment, that I treat them as my brother or sister, with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Mental health is in the very encounter: it means to connect with people, to find out their needs.
Georgina Sanchez, JRS Mental Health Clinician

Mental health and psychosocial support: addressing basic needs

“We often think of MHPSS as only related to clinical intervention, psychological therapy, and psychotropic medication. While it can be all of these things, it is also so much more.” Christian Alama Bediang, JRS Regional MHPSS Officer for West Africa and Great Lakes, is a clinical psychologist and mental health specialist with years of experience serving people affected by displacement in a wide range of contexts.

As part of his work coordinating JRS’s MHPSS activities in five countries, Christian witnessed how the greatest challenges to displaced people’s mental wellbeing often stem from everyday worries.

Amidst the difficult realities of displacement in West Africa, chronic daily stressors such as hunger and lack of hygiene or shelter can eventually lead to anxiety, depression, and other mild or severe mental health conditions. In a context in which people often remain displaced for years, making a living is a constant worry, especially for men who are socially expected to be breadwinners. “They are not able to take care [of their family] and that questions their identity, who they are as husbands and fathers,” explains Christian.

Given the roots of these issues, MHPSS for displaced people in West Africa also means helping people to cope with daily struggles: “We have many testimonies whereby, just by meeting their needs, people end up in a positive mental health,” confirms Christian. “They become stronger, empowered.”


Mental health and psychosocial support: developing human connections

Displacement often involves disruptions of social ties. The subsequent lack of human connection and community can deeply affect people’s wellbeing.

One day at the shelter Georgina met an indigenous girl, unresponsive and non-verbal on arrival. In many circumstances, such severe situations might require a specialized intervention. In the context of displacement, however, the stressors can become so overwhelming that such reactions are understandable. Indeed, with time Georgina’s team developed a connection with the girl, heard her harrowing story, and realised she was desperate to speak to her mother back in Guatemala.

“I lent her my phone, facilitated her to connect with her people: that’s mental health as well,” explains Georgina. Following their intervention, the young woman was able to better cope with her current situation. For once, comments Georgina, providing mental health services “had to come with genuine empathy and awareness of people’s pressing needs.”

When people are really connected to the community, they grow, they develop their mental health.
Christian Alama Bediang, JRS Regional MHPSS Officer

MHPSS creates and sustains communities by actively including refugees and migrants and strengthening psychosocial support networks. For example, developing listening and communications skills in schools in West Africa can help improve the relationships among teachers and students. “When people are really connected to the community, they grow, they develop their mental health,” confirms Christian.

In this sense, MHPSS is “any type of support that aims to promote or protect psychosocial wellbeing,” acknowledges Christian. Any humanitarian worker can implement such an approach because, as Georgina also explains, mental health is “in the very encounter: it means to connect with people, to find out their needs.”


Mental health and psychosocial support: implementing an overarching approach

Moving beyond the idea of mental health as primarily a clinical issue does not mean avoiding interventions by specialized providers, such as psychologists or psychiatrists. Professionals are always needed to diagnose and refer more severe cases to speacialised services. At the same time, it is crucial that all staff is trained to implement and integrate MHPSS considerations into all projects.

Interacting daily with people in vulnerable situations can be overwhelming; not being able to dedicate enough time to each person soon becomes exhausting. To cope, Georgina focuses on the best parts of her job, on “the opportunity to see the humanity of people.” She also actively fosters staff wellbeing by sparking important conversations over compassion fatigue, discrimination, and personal biases.

In his coordinating role, Christian, too, delivers workshops to staff across West Africa, making sure everyone possesses the skills necessary to better serve displaced people and to take care of their own mental health. Many of the MHPSS skills he teaches his coworkers are similar to those administered to displaced people.

Christian’s goal is for all staff members “to understand the mental health components of their work” and to develop skills to help one another. “All our workers, no matter their specialisation, no matter their sector, need these skills,” he stresses.


Mental health and psychosocial support: “Understanding is healing”

Georgina and Christian show us how JRS’s mental health and psychosocial support approach puts displaced people at the centre and accompanies them on their journey. Most importantly, it prioritizes mental health for all – refugees and staff alike – leaving no one behind.

By attending to people’s basic needs, investing in communities, and providing professional interventions, MHPSS work represents a key pillar of JRS’s mission to build hope, restore human dignity, and strengthen social cohesion.