On World Mental Health Day, the United Nations highlights the importance of making mental health care available to all people who need it, whatever their circumstances and wherever they live. This year, we are drawing attention to the urgent need to provide immediate support to people who experience psychological distress after surviving a crisis.
These events take many forms. Today, we are witnessing an unprecedented wave of humanitarian emergencies linked to conflict and natural disasters. Meanwhile, millions of people each year endure sexual assault, violent crime and traumatic accidents.
Too often, people who suffer like this receive little or no immediate counselling. In situations of humanitarian crisis, it is because there are rarely any trained mental health professionals available. However, it is perfectly possible to train first responders, such as police and fire officers, emergency health staff and humanitarian aid workers to provide “psychological first aid” to people in need. We have seen such examples in the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the approach is also being offered widely in Syria and for thousands of displaced people in Greece, Nigeria and South Sudan.
Psychological first aid is just one component of the broader mental health services integral to national health systems that Governments committed to in the World Health Organization’s Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020. Governments need to develop robust systems of care for the short- and long-term. Civil society organizations can support these efforts through raising awareness, community-based programmes and research. And each one of us can examine how we can offer support to our friends, families and neighbours.