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In Sierra Leone, Ebola Fades But Still Impacts Mental Health

FILE - Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in the Waterloo district of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Burial teams are vulnerable to psychological stress.

The last known Ebola patient in Sierra Leone was released from a hospital Monday. If the country goes 42 days without a new case, it will be declared Ebola-free. But the virus’ effects continue to haunt many residents, including those who buried the bodies of Ebola victims.

When Ebola was at its peak a year ago, corpses sometimes would be left for days before being picked up by overwhelmed burial teams.

The images of decomposed bodies began to haunt burial worker Abu Bakar Kalokah after he joined the Red Cross.

"You become nervous. Sometimes you sit alone, thinking what is going to happen tomorrow because tomorrow is another day and the work is not easy," he said.

All burials in Sierra Leone must be done by teams wearing protective gear to prevent the virus from spreading from the deceased to the living.

Seeing people killed by Ebola day in and day out was daunting for the burial teams. Some even turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Relief valve

To ease their burden, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) brought in brought in psychosocial experts to administer psychological first aid.

One method they taught burial members to do, was to use comedic skits, song and dance to ease stress.

Performing for each other helps everyone decompress, said another burial team member, Tamba Musa, adding, "When they come and see these funny dances, it makes them forget the day’s traumas, the trauma they’ve gone through."

Joshua Abioseh Duncan is a coordinator for the Mental Health Coalition of Sierra Leone. The coalition, created in 2011, strives to make sure that mental health professionals are available in every district of the country.

Psychosocial support

This includes teaching people how to provide psychosocial support for each other.

For the Ebola response the coalition also worked with government and international partners on mental health issues. This included teaching people how to provide psychosocial support for each other in communities.

Counseling will need to continue after the country is Ebola-free, Duncan said. But, he worries there may not be enough trained people to help.

"I only know of one Sierra Leone psychologist, and for me that is a challenge," Duncan said. "Professional counselors – we need more of them. We need more individuals to provide service with regards to issues of this kind."

He added that there’s only one psychiatrist for the country’s 6 million people. With so many affected by Ebola, he said, it’s simply not enough.