Increase access to mental health services globally

Throughout the world, oppression, armed conflict, and other crises are inflicting great suffering upon millions of men, women, and children from countries such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Burma. As a result, the numbers of refugees fleeing violence continues to swell at an astonishing pace, creating an overwhelming global humanitarian emergency.

In its “Mid-Year Trends 2013” report, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that their population of concern –persons forcibly displaced by conflict, persecution, statelessness, and violence—stood at 38.7 million, the highest level on record. Syria was the source of the largest displacement.

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Many of these refugees are survivors of torture, sexual and gender based violence, religious persecution, political oppression, and other human rights abuses.  Some have witnessed the death of loved ones, escaped massacres, or have been targeted for other atrocities.

Whether living as refugees in a neighboring country or displaced internally, these survivors live in extreme uncertainty about what the future may hold for themselves, their families, their communities, or their entire countries. For people who have endured such distressing experiences, there is an increased and severe risk to their psychological well-being. 

The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) knows from our experience working with refugees—in camps and urban settings—and in post-conflict areas that people who survive torture and violence can experience serious mental health problems, including deep despair, anxiety, and depression. These conditions can be debilitating and impair the ability of those affected to care for themselves or their families. They desperately need access to mental health and psychosocial support programs.  Unfortunately, there are very few resources available worldwide to address the tremendous needs of affected individuals and communities.

In Jordan, CVT provides mental health rehabilitation services to Syrian and Iraqi survivors of torture and war atrocities. Daily, Syrian refugees are arriving at CVT’s offices seeking care for themselves, their children, and other family members. Throughout the Middle East, particularly in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, humanitarian assistance needs, including mental health and psychosocial support, are rapidly climbing and far exceed the capacity of CVT and other humanitarian providers in the region.

Syrian children have been particularly affected. In a recent report released by UNICEF, the agency found that events in Syria and Jordan have had a significant impact on the mental health and psychosocial well-being of Syrian girls, boys, and women and recommended urgent attention to increasing support for families and communities, as well as provision of specialized services for children suffering from profound stress or ongoing anxiety, aggression, or depression.

CVT commends the U.S. Senate for its unanimous approval of the Syrian Humanitarian Resolution of 2014. This action represents a strong expression of U.S. support for the millions of Syrians, including children, who have experienced unimaginable pain and suffering. Among its core provisions, the resolution calls on the international community to increase investments in programs to assist children, including through counseling and psychosocial support.

It is imperative for the international community, including the United States, to do more to support mental health for refugees and survivors of humanitarian emergencies, especially by allocating resources specifically targeted for mental health and by integrating mental health with other programs.

To that end, the Global Mental Health Advocacy Group – a new NGO coalition founded by CVT and the International Medical Corps – has formed to advance the prioritization, quality, and availability of mental health services in humanitarian, transition, and development settings. One of the Working Group’s key aims is closing the wide and deepening gap between the immense global need for mental health services and the grossly inadequate resources.

Mental health care itself can be lifesaving. We have seen, even in the aftermath of widespread violence, individuals, families, and communities do heal and do rebuild their lives.  It is our hope that U.S. policymakers will work together this year to expand support for mental health and psychosocial support programming and to ensure both are major elements of the government’s international development and foreign policy agendas.

Sovcik is director of the Washington Office at the Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota and dedicated to healing survivors of torture and violent conflict and to advocating for human rights and an end to torture.