Opening up about mental health

Child protection worker from Albania helps families cope with psychosocial distress

Anila Miria and Ina Verzivolli
Alba, the social worker
UNICEF Albania
25 September 2020

Alba works as a child protection worker and domestic violence focal point in the municipality of Patos, a small province situated in the south of Albania. She is one of the 230 frontline professionals who regularly attended the online trainings on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), organized by UNICEF in Albania in collaboration with the World Health Organisation.

This training is making a difference in Alba’s daily work for the community’s benefit to address additional challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She walked us to her small office, surrounded by files of case documents that she was managing. “Domestic violence and violence against children was widespread in this community even before the pandemic outbreak. Nevertheless, people neither speak out nor share the culture of reporting domestic violence. Women and girls must remain silent,” she said.

Social disparities, high rates of unemployment and hopelessness for the future of the country have exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 in the life of the municipality and its inhabitants.

“During the lockdown, many families that I know have shown a high level of psychosocial distress. Families were faced with a ‘new and unexpected reality’ of staying at home for straight days while their incomes were reduced day by day. Children’s daily routines were severely affected. They no longer had the chance to play or engage in outdoor activities or go to school, making them feel increasingly agitated and frustrated,” reports Alba who is a trained psychologist.

Social worker
UNICEF Albania

She is well acquainted with the mentality of the community she lives in. “The community I live in continues to feel uncomfortable with opening up about their mental health. It is considered a taboo to express the need for a psychologist. Men never seek psychosocial services, for it is up to them to show strength and independence; a belief that is rooted in Albanian tradition” says Alba.

Thus, virtually 80 per cent of the calls that Alba had during the lockdown were made by women, who were concerned about both their children and themselves. They reported that their children had trouble sleeping and showed aggressive behaviors at times.

Although all public institutions and other services were temporarily halted, Alba never abandoned her mission. Considering the unprecedented situation that the people in need were experiencing and following guidelines from the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, she provided online counseling, even after office hours. She offered psychological support to families, and psychosocial support to children, so that they could learn how to manage their feelings.

“I was able to provide basic level of counseling, mainly aiming at building some positive social skills. However, I felt that something was missing, I was not sure I was offering a proper counseling to my clients, until one day I was invited by UNICEF Albania to attend a series of online webinars on Mental and Psychosocial Support.

“The community I live in, continues to feel uncomfortable with opening up about their mental health. It is considered a taboo to express the need for a psychologist." 

“This training was an eye-opening for me. I learned which approaches are most effective in supporting children’s psychosocial wellbeing and resilience in the context of COVID-19. I was introduced to the intervention pyramid for mental health and psychosocial support in emergencies, and most importantly, I learned how to better support the psychosocial wellbeing of the children and families through my everyday work,” Alba said.

Her dream, wish and call for the local government is to set up a multidisciplinary center, where integrated services are provided by highly skilled staff to support vulnerable children and families address their issues  and prevent violence in the family.

“I hope that we will come out of this situation stronger and better, and use the skills and experience we are gaining during this emergency to improve the child protection system in Albania”