Mental health and psychosocial support in emergencies
Children exposed to conflict, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises can suffer severe psychological and social consequences.
Millions of children around the world suffer unthinkable distress due to armed conflict, natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies.
They may be forced to flee their homes, some separated from their parents and caregivers along the way. During conflict, they may endure staggering violence, severe injuries and the threat of recruitment into armed groups. Many are cut off from fundamental services like clean water, health care and education, especially as towns become militarized and communities divided.
Through it all, children often lack access to mental health and psychosocial support, with potentially devastating long-term effects.
Anxiety, depression and other stress-related problems threaten their ability to grow up healthy and happy. Violence can take a lifelong toll on their emotional health, physical health and social development. If exposed in early childhood, the experience can even hamper a child's brain development.
For adolescents, severe distress and exposure to traumatic events can lead to various harmful outcomes, including alcohol and drug abuse, low self-esteem, health issues, poor school performance, self-harm and suicide.
Children exposed to conflict face severe emotional stress that can result in lifelong mental health and psychosocial issues.
Failure to address mental health and psychosocial issues stalls a child’s development and bars her from opportunities to participate meaningfully in society. All too often, children with mental health conditions suffer stigma, discrimination – even human rights violations. They may be excluded from their communities or exposed to further violence, including in the places they should be safest.
Crisis situations also put parents and caregivers under mental and psychosocial duress, which can prevent them from providing the protection, stability and nurturing care their children need during and after an emergency.
Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) is essential for improving the well-being of children affected by humanitarian emergencies. UNICEF works around the world to strengthen the resilience of children and their families, and to help them cope with adversity during and after a crisis. We adapt our services to local contexts, listening to what communities identify as their priorities.
UNICEF creates nurturing environments that provide the conditions for a child’s optimal development. We offer mental health and psychosocial support to children, adolescents, caregivers, families and the wider community through a range of interventions that meet their complex needs.
Children and adolescents
Alongside partners, we set up safe spaces that provide regular, structured activities to help children and adolescents develop skills to deal with crisis, solve problems, regulate their emotions, and form and maintain relationships. This could be through peer-to-peer groups, recreational activities, sports, and life-skills and vocational training.
We also work to address harmful behaviours and norms in order to reduce bullying, abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence. When needed, we provide direct individual support or refer children to further specialized care.
Caregivers and families
UNICEF helps parents and caregivers to develop the knowledge and skills to support children in distress. We raise awareness of the distress reactions that children may have during humanitarian crises, promote positive parenting knowledge and skills, and train parents and caregivers in supporting children with mental health conditions.
We strengthen family and community support networks, facilitating the inclusion and participation of vulnerable families in communal activities and holding peer support groups for mothers and fathers.
UNICEF also ensures parents and caregivers themselves are taken care of. We provide mental health and psychosocial support to teachers, and focus care for distressed parents and caregivers through initiatives like Psychological First Aid, parent education programmes, and peer support groups. As needed, we offer specialized care to parents and caregivers with mental health issues.
Communities and partners
UNICEF works alongside community organizations to develop their capacity to support child and family well-being. Through activities like stigma-reduction campaigns and programmes that facilitate mental health care, we provide clear information about children’s mental health and psychosocial needs to help communities take action.
Reaching the most vulnerable children and caregivers who have experienced severely distressing events requires collaboration across specialized mental health, protection, education, social service and other actors.
We help build the capacity of health, education, social services and other sectors to provide child and family-friendly mental health and psychosocial support services. We do this by facilitating child-friendly communication and spaces, along with other initiatives that help children and their families meaningfully shape the programmes that impact their well-being.
More from UNICEF
Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings and Accompanying Field Checklist
Operational Guidelines on Community-Based Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Humanitarian Settings
A Common Monitoring and Evaluation Framework for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Programmes in Emergency Settings
Inter-Agency Referral Form and Guidance Note and Supplementary Inter-Agency Referral Training Package and Material
Last updated 3 September 2020