The mental health needs of refugees were highlighted at a workshop organized by WHO, where lessons were shared by refugee-hosting countries and strategies were discussed on how to manage the number growing number of refugees arriving from the war in Ukraine. Experts from host countries shared best practices for providing urgent mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) to arriving refugees.
Held under the auspices of the Pan-European Mental Health Coalition and as a follow-up to the High Level Meeting on Health and Migration held in Istanbul in March 2022, participants included members of society civil society, international organizations and mental health and migration experts, members of the refugee community and representatives of refugee-hosting countries as well as WHO representatives working on the health response mental.
“The Russian aggression in Ukraine was a big shock for Poland but also for the whole region,” Polish Deputy Health Minister Waldemar Kraska said. He noted that initially aid had focused on meeting the basic needs of refugees, but now needed to focus on mental health, especially for “young mothers and children who have to flee knowing that their husbands and fathers are still in Ukraine, struggle.”
Support mental health
War, armed conflict and other man-made or natural disasters cause profound distress and can, in some cases, inflame or worsen existing mental health issues. Most people will recover without help; however, it is estimated that 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health issue within the next 10 years, and 1 in 10 will experience a serious illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder or psychosis.
This makes good quality MHPSS essential for the recovery of war-affected countries. For Viktoria Mariniuk, who works for the League for Mental Health in Slovakia and herself had to leave Ukraine, a good MHPSS is nothing without the involvement of the people concerned: “Let me tell you about the good MHPSS: People want to be heard, and in most cases, no medical procedures or medications are needed.
Workshop participants agreed that refugee populations need to be better involved in future MHPSS work. In addition, it was agreed that refugee-friendly mental health support should be integrated into national emergency preparedness, response and recovery plans before an emergency occurs.
Examples of good practice include the establishment of easy-to-access MHPSS service centers in Slovakia and the relaxation of regulations allowing Ukrainians with the relevant qualifications to provide mental health support to refugees without having to obtain a new license in Poland.
Refugees in Ukraine
Millions of people have been forcibly displaced since the start of the war in Ukraine. More than 7 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries and beyond. Millions more are internally displaced. Around 4.4 million refugees registered for temporary protection or similar national protection programs in Europe (as of 25 October 2022).
WHO experts were deployed to Ukraine and neighboring countries within days of the start of the war to respond to immediate health needs and begin the process of coordinating mental health and psychosocial support. This involved informing refugees arriving with pre-existing mental health problems where to get help, whether it was psychotropic medication or counselling.
WHO makes MHPSS resources available, coordinates MHPSS and provides surge support. Supporting countries in this effort is one of the main priorities of the Pan-European Mental Health Coalition, which will hold its second meeting on 23-24 November 2022 to continue the work started at this meeting.