Global Mental Health Week
10 October 2021
Global Mental Health Week
By Abda Mahmood
In early 2020, I was invited to join the Board of Trustees at the charity Beyond Conflict (BC). Flattered and excited, I accepted the post. I was keen to use my academic training and networks in psychology and epidemiology, and personal commitment to bettering society, to support BC’s mission; to offer free psychological support to victims of war, terrorism and displacement.
A key project that I’ve worked on since joining the charity is reducing the psychological suffering amongst Rohingya refugees and frontline NGO staff in the largest refugee camp in the world, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The Rohingya people who live in Cox’s Bazar were forced to flee from mass killing, military attack, rape, and systematic massacre inflicted by the Myanmar Army in the Rakhine State. They’ve had their human rights horrifically violated and then experienced displacement and more trauma in the camps. This places an already incredibly vulnerable population at enormous risk of mental health crises.
We at BC wanted to provide specialist mental health support to the refugees in Cox’s Bazaar. But we first needed to highlight the need, usefulness and impact of this work. We started by working with our partner, the Global Development Consortium, who directly work with local NGOs on the ground in Cox’s Bazaar, to design a project to provide free mental health support for the camp community.
The initial plan to first focus on the mental health of the refugee population was side-tracked by the Covid-19 pandemic. Access into the camps was restricted in 2020 due to a lockdown. In addition, global uncertainty and fear about the impact of Covid-19, as well as local uncertainty about how to socially distance and protect medically vulnerable groups in camps, meant we had to adapt our project. We chose to remotely support the mental health of frontline staff who directly work with the refugee community. This was simpler and safer than working with refugees during the height of the pandemic. It also helped us to focus our efforts on improving understanding of the unique struggles of staff who work in the camps.
Working with refugee populations on a daily basis comes with its own trauma and stress. So we provided local frontline staff from several NGOs on the ground with access to free mental health training online from a leading British Bangladeshi psychiatrist, Dr Abul Saleh. Local staff also had access to a free 24-hour helpline for support and a referral pathway in case further specialist support was needed in the longer term. This referral pathway was used to provide one frontline worker, who had attempted suicide twice, with access to long term psychiatric support. BC Co-Founder, Edna Fernandes, talks about this case in more detail here.
With fellow BC Trustee, Gillian Dare, I helped to design a simple evaluation questionnaire that was given to the NGO staff who took part in the project. This included questions about their personal and work circumstances, and their view on the mental health training they’d received. The responses and stories from the frontline staff humbled and shocked me. Reading their accounts of physical and mental violations that camp refugees have experienced, and their own struggles at home with domestic violence, and financial and health worries, helped me to learn the breadth of problems that camp workers face. I helped to write this report, which summarises the responses from all the frontline staff who replied to the questionnaire. These real and heart-breaking stories, individually and together, so clearly highlight how urgently specialist mental health support is needed for frontline staff.
We want to learn from these findings to help fund larger projects that will reach even more frontline workers and refugees in Cox’s Bazaar and other displaced regions. This project is one of many that are needed to reduce psychological suffering in conflict zones.
I believe we have a social responsibility to use this improved awareness of mental trauma in conflict zones to drive efforts to ensure that vulnerable and displaced communities, and those who directly work with them, have mental health support.
BC has no overhead costs (all Trustees, Ambassadors and the team are volunteers) so any donation you make will directly support the victims of displacement, war and terrorism. Please donate here and continue to keep in touch with our projects and how they’re progressing here. Do reach out with any comments or questions on BC’s work here.
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Registered Charity Number: 1176499