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From Germany to Jordan: Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Displaced Peoples

Updated: Sep 2

There are many flavours of war. They can be civil or international, their battles could be fought in cities, borders or rural areas, the reasons for which they are fought could be religion, ideology or liberation. One thing that every modern conflict has in common, however, is the mass displacement of innocent civilians.


One such displaced person is Mohammed*, a Syrian boy whose life became plagued by pain and loss. At five years’ old his father was shot and killed by a sniper. Shortly after this, he and the remainder of his family were forced to flee to Turkey. Mohammed did not react strongly to his father’s death, but he did display other signs of severe trauma. He developed a stammer, wet the bed, and behaved aggressively towards people and animals, withdrawing from his family and becoming increasing introverted as the years went on.


Happily, Mohammed’s story ends optimistically. He currently lives in a centre for children to treat his trauma and allow him to have the childhood he was denied. Unfortunately, scores of children and adults across displaced populations are denied access to treatment. When your life is turned upside down by violent war, trauma and depression are all too common. However, unlike the physical damage done by armed conflict, a psychological injury can appear less urgent due to its invisibility. This leads to a situation in which the mental health needs of displaced people are not met, and allowed to worsen.


The statistics appear bleak: studies have estimated that as many as 30% of displaced refugees suffer from PTSD. Even worse, insecure residence, prolonged detention and lack of opportunities experienced by refugees have been shown to exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD and depression. In German refugee camps, there are psychotherapy sessions offered to those most in need, yet the need is far from being met, with the demand for mental health services estimated at 20 times higher than the supply. Elsewhere, camps in low-income countries face seemingly insurmountable challenges, with 1.4 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan, a country that spends as little as 2% of its health sector resources on mental health services for their own citizens.


Witnessing death, becoming displaced and long, unpleasant journeys are just a few examples of the kind of unimaginable horrors refugees are forced to face. Although it makes sense that the basic needs of food, shelter and physical health are prioritised in the deployment of aid, the lack of emphasis on mental healing in global health efforts is a gross injustice.


Of course, there have been some efforts made to address this challenge. International charities such as MSF have been helping those most in need through setting up psychological support programs across the world: from sending mental health practitioners to the Domeez refugee camp in northern Iraq, to training refugees to become psychological peer supporters in Germany. MSF, and global health NGOs like it, have certainly made strides in addressing the inadequate care for mental health conditions for displaced people, but as it stands today, more must be done by both governmental and non-governmental organisations to uphold the dignity of those who experience the impact of war mentally as well as physically.


Further reading:

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