3 July 2015

Ethiopia: 'Socialization Is a Good Sign for Improving Mental Health'


Recently, a group of journalists drawn from state and private media outlets paid a field visits to three refugee camps in Gambella State that are temporary homes for quite a number of South Sudanese refugees. The group also participated in a week-long, June 21-26, 2015, Mental Health Campaign for the refugees organized by International Medical Corps.

The following is excerpts of the interview with Paul Adrian Emes, Country Director of International Medical Corps concerning the campaign and the overall activities of the Corps. Enjoy reading.

What are the intervention areas of International Medical Corps?

International Medical Corps is a non-governmental organization working to save lives and relieve the suffering of refugees through healthcare, training, relief and development programmes. It has been implementing emergency women's welfare ensuring the safety of women and their families from the time they first arrive in this country through their settlement into the camps.

We as well run sexual reproductive health, mental health and psychosocial support programmes serving South Sudanese refugees in the three camps, namely Jewi, Tierkidi, and Kule in Gambella State. We are working closely with refugee communities and partners to reduce mental health problems and address their underlying causes for vulnerable community members in the camps as well. We plan to stay here until the refugees go back to their homes.

What is the organization's main activity in the camps?

One of our key programmes is mental health and psychosocial support, thus, this week-long campaign to raise awareness on mental health and psychosocial issues in the refugee community and indeed in the host community. We are eager to reach not only refugees that have experienced displacement, suffering and trauma but of course also the host community, who are in a very difficult situation, and yet have welcomed so many refugees with such open arms and adaptability.

What is the most common mental health problem you encounter?

The main mental health and psychosocial problem that so far we faced is epilepsy. While depression, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are very serious issues, PTSD is particularly common among refugees and displaced peoples as well as those affected by trauma and natural disaster. What makes all these worse, though, is stigma and discrimination. It is bad enough having depression or PTSD and having communities that don't talk about it makes it worse since it prevents people seek for treatment.

Which mental illness has a high prevalence?

Epilepsy has a high prevalence. It is just the commonly found mental illness. A higher prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder is seen among refugees, because they have been exposed to war, famine, the loss of family members, and separation from their loved ones. Psychosis and depression are significant issues among the refugees.

According to him, WHO estimates that usually, rates of common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression double in the context of humanitarian emergencies from a baseline of about 10 to 20 per cent. While people with severe mental disorders-averaging 2-3 per cent of the population - are especially vulnerable in such context and need access to care.

There is a lack of understanding of the symptoms of depression and mental illness in the community, this is why we organized a week-long mental health campaign with the theme ; "Let's Sweep Mental Illness Out from under the Rug".

So what is being done to address the prevailing mental illnesses in the camps?

We are working with the refugee and the host community in two ways: one is to address the mental illnesses themselves. We diagnose and refer patients for treatment at the Administration for Refugees-Returnees Affairs (ARRA) Health Centre also at our own case management centre. The aim of the project is to create access to mental health and psychosocial support services for refugees and vulnerable host communities.

To support mental health diagnosis and treatment in collaboration with ARRA and UNHCR, the International Medical Corps mental health and psycho-social support programme provided training on WHO priority conditions such as epilepsy, psychosis, depression, alcohol abuse and other complaints for Primary Healthcare providers.

This aims to improve access to services and care for people with mental health disorders by integrating mental health services within primary healthcare centres.

The training, which was organized in two phases - theoretical training and clinical on-the-job supervision- was provided by consultant psychiatrists with close support from the Organization mental health staff. Thus, forty five staffs were trained, among them ARRA staff and host community health facility workers in Itang Woreda Health Centre, Gambella Hospital, Gambella, Nyinyang and Jikaw health centres.

We are also supporting ARRA health centres by providing psychotropic medication, so that individuals with mental illness have access to essential drugs to treat their conditions; as well as making sure they get the counselling support they need to get better.

The other thing we are doing is working with the refugee and the host community to battle against stigma and discrimination to raise awareness that mental illness and psychosocial problems are like any other illness. We all get ill during our life, whether mental or physical illness.

As to WHO, one person in six in the world will suffer from some form of mental illness or psychosocial disorder at some point during their lives. So we are working to identify and ensure treatment for the conditions themselves and also to work with the communities to ensure that people are respected, welcomed, and not discriminated against.

What about the campaign undertaken?

The whole campaign is basically around helping people to gain understanding of what mental illness and psychosocial disorders are, and what we can do together as community members and humanitarian organizations to address them.

Thus, a wide range of community activities such as workshops, awareness raising endeavours, tea talk sessions with the refugee community, social activities and disseminating information were organised. We were seeking to make people aware of the referral pathway which explains what the system is for identifying and caring for people who have some form of mental illness or psychosocial disorder.

Another part of the programme we are emphasizing is psychosocial support activities. Our mental health centres have social centre activities including table tennis games, dominoes as well as other fun stuff to encourage the integration of people with mental disorders and psychosocial stress, to participate in group activities as well as get them out their homes and relate with the community.

To be frank, integration with community activities and socialization is one of the best signal for improving mental health, whereas being hidden away is one of the worst signal for improving mental health.

I believe together we will make it through this tough and difficult journey, working with the Ethiopian authorities, the refugee and host community to improve the situation of those with mental illness.



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