28 Nov 13 03 Jun 21

Mental Health

In the places where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) operates, we often treat people who have mental illness or have had to confront distressing situations such as extreme violence, trauma, loss or displacement.

Mental health support can be crucial to help people cope. People seek help for many reasons — the agonizing loss of a child in an earthquake, the trauma of violence or surviving a dangerous journey. Our teams can provide mental health and psychosocial support through group sessions or individual consultations. MSF’s mental health care aims primarily to reduce people’s symptoms and improve their ability to manage a difficult time so they can get on with their lives.

In 1998, MSF formally recognized the need to implement mental health and psychosocial interventions as part of our emergency work. For people who have lived through traumatic events, the psychological consequences can be severe.

divider

Depression and anxiety

People caught in the wake of a humanitarian crisis can suffer from debilitating depression and anxiety, including conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Many patients seen by MSF will have been separated from their families or witnessed the deaths of loved ones. Others may have been forced to flee, searching for shelter, supplies and safety. These events can immobilize people with depression and anxiety at a time when they need to take action for themselves and their families.

MSF professionals are there to listen and support so that traumatic experiences do not come to define our patients' lives.

Our support for patients

Needs are high, and MSF continues to expand its mental health programs. Last year, MSF’s mental health teams performed more than 400,000 individual and group counseling sessions worldwide. 

Mental health care is also part of services for HIV/AIDStuberculosisnutritionsexual violence, and during disease outbreaks and disasters.

MSF’s mental health care aims primarily to reduce people’s symptoms and improve their ability to function. Often this work is done by local counselors specially trained by MSF. MSF psychologists or psychiatrists provide technical support and clinical supervision.

When appropriate, MSF’s counseling services may reinforce or complement mental health care approaches that already exist in the local community. Often this work is done by local counsellors specially trained by MSF, while our psychologists or psychiatrists provide technical support and clinical supervision. 

At the same time, specialized clinicians are available to treat severe mental illness. However, this accounts for a minority of the cases seen by MSF.

Increasing capacity

People seek help for many reasons—the agonizing loss of a child in an earthquake, the trauma of sexual violence, getting caught up in a violent conflict. MSF mental health workers listen to their stories, and help them find ways to cope and move on with their lives.

Treating severely disturbed people remains a challenge for MSF teams, given the complexity of managing psychiatric drugs and medication.

Increasing teams’ capacity to treat these illnesses remains a priority for MSF.

Setting up mental health care programs in emergency situations is not straightforward, especially when violence and trauma are ongoing, and therefore no "cure" is possible.

Sometimes, it is difficult to guarantee continuity of care in unstable and dangerous settings.