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New WHO Report Focuses on Mental Health

Resident of Half Way Home, a government-run home for the mentally ill located inside a mental health hospital premise, sits on her bed in Mulleriyawa, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 2, 2013.
Resident of Half Way Home, a government-run home for the mentally ill located inside a mental health hospital premise, sits on her bed in Mulleriyawa, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 2, 2013.
Lisa Schlein
A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) argues that humanitarian emergencies offer opportunities for improving peoples’ lives through improving mental health services.  The report is being released on World Humanitarian Day, August 19, in hopes of ensuring that those faced with emergencies can recover and rebuild their lives even better than before.  

When conflicts and natural disasters trigger mental health problems, psychological help is needed, but usually is not available.  Humanitarian agencies work hard to help people recover.   But WHO found much of the support offered tends to be of short duration.   
 
Mark Van Ommeren of WHO's Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse noted that many people affected by catastrophic events have long-term problems and are in need of long-term help.  He said emergencies present an enormous opportunity to build back better health systems, especially mental health systems, which, according to WHO, are virtually nonexistant in low-and-middle income countries.
 
“Those systems would be for all people in need - people with new mental health problems and people with pre-existing mental health problems," Van Ommeren explained. "That is important because in many areas of the world, as you know, there are no mental health services.  So, this is an opening.  This is also very important because societies that go through major emergencies need to recover and mental health is essential for recovery of these events for the functioning of society, for the resilience of society.”  
 
WHO's 110-page report provides guidance for strengthening mental health systems after emergencies.  It focuses on 10 cases, where countries have taken advantage of this opportunity.
 
One nation the report cites is Sri Lanka.  In the aftermath of the catastrophic 2004 Tsunami, it said the government created a new national mental health policy, which extends to most parts of the country.
 
Another example is that of Iraq.  Dr. Van Ommeren said it is particularly appropriate to focus on Iraq since the WHO report is being issued on World Humanitarian Day, marking the 10th anniversary of the bombing of United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed at least 22 people including UN Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.  
 
“Iraq since 2004, has made substantial progress towards the creation of a mental health system-meaning that, making sure that people have access to mental health care," he said. "So, now over all these years about half of all the general practitioners--you can imagine it is a big country, there are a lot of general practitioners--about half of them have been trained in mental health.  That brings mental health care closer to the people.  Before that, most mental health care was only available in big cities, in asylums.  The situation was much more negative. Now, it is more positive.”  
 
Other positive case studies include Afghanistan, Burundi, Aceh Province in Indonesia, Jordan, Kosovo, Somalia, Timor-Leste, and West Bank and Gaza Strip.  
 
WHO hopes the report will help policymakers reform their mental health systems, especially those susceptible to future emergencies.  Already this year, the world is grappling with crises in conflict-ridden Syria, in Mali and the Central African Republic and there has been major flooding in parts of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
 

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