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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

UN task force unveils mental health guidelines for healing communities in emergencies

© UNICEF/HQ07-1801/Berkwitz
At launch of new guidelines for psychosocial support in emergency situations (from left), UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Margareta Wahlström, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde F. Johnson and UN Population Fund Parliamentary/NGO Public Affairs Officer Harumi Kodama.

By Amy Bennett

NEW YORK, USA, 20 November 2007 – The heavy burden of mental health and psychosocial needs in emergencies causes significant problems for children and families around the world. Until recently, however, no comprehensive mental health guidelines were available for field workers on the ground during emergencies.

Participants in the launch of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, which took place at the United Nations today, stressed the need for a rapid and coordinated response to mental-health needs in emergencies.

Implementing the guidelines, the task force stressed, will go a long way toward resolving the problems faced by humanitarian aid agencies in the past. Consensus on principles and best practices for psychosocial support in emergency situations has been badly needed but difficult to achieve – until now.

© UNICEF/HQ05-0394/Palani Mohan
Pattama, 13, holds her drawing depicting the tsunami at the UNICEF-assisted Bang Muang School in Phang Nga Province, Thailand, where she attended a psychosocial counselling session to help children recover from trauma.

“Over the past decade, experts working in this field have increasingly realized that under the right circumstances, most people affected by emergencies have been shown to be remarkably resilient,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde F. Johnson said at the launch of the new guidelines. “With the right support, they are able to overcome the most extraordinary difficulties. Children, too,” she added.

Communities healing themselves

Emergency situations affect everyone and can, in addition, worsen pre-existing problems  placing children, women, the elderly, the poor, refugees and displaced persons at a higher risk of social and psychological stress.

Ms. Johnson emphasized three key psychosocial interventions from the IASC guidelines that field workers should adopt to manage this stress:

  • Take emergency preparedness steps before the emergency occurs
  • Implement minimum necessary psychosocial responses during the acute phase of the emergency
  • Implement comprehensive responses during the stabilized and early reconstruction phases of the emergency.

Ms. Johnson and others also advocated a greater focus on community mobilization – that is, communities healing themselves with support, rather than aid agencies ‘parachuting in’ and attempting to force healing in ways that may clash with the local culture or be difficult to maintain once the initial humanitarian response is over. 

© UNICEF/HQ07-1802/Berkwitz
Panellists view presentation of Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings.

“Communities know how to heal themselves,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Margareta Wahlström. “But as communities become shattered, we are looking at the need for mental health and psychosocial support in these communities.”

Effects on vulnerable children

When children are not supported in their recovery from difficult events, they are less likely to become productive and responsible members of their communities. If support is not available for these children, the resulting psychological and social tension puts strain on the fabric of society, hampering peace and development.

“Mental health and psychological well-being are rights of all affected populations,” said Ms. Johnson. “These rights have been enshrined in international law – for instance, the Convention on the Rights of the Child includes the right to development for children everywhere.”

The IASC guidelines take into account all aspects of a child’s well-being – including the impact of health, education, protection and social services – and aim to ensure that a broad group of diverse actors can work using one coordinated approach.

And experts note that the implications of not taking into account mental health and psychosocial well-being can be severe, getting in the way of larger humanitarian efforts in emergencies. “When you deliver food without psychosocial stimulus, you only do half the job,” said the Senior Technical Adviser for Mental Health at the International Medical Corps, Lynne Jones.



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