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Majority of Mental Health Problems in Conflict Zones and Other Emergencies Go Untreated: Survey

A patient looks from behind bars at a psychiatric hospital during a ceremony marking the World Mental Health Day in Sanaa, Yemen October 10, 2019.

More than one out of five people in conflict-affected areas live with some form of mental health condition, from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress

To mark World Mental Health Day, the International Committee of the Red Cross is calling for greater psycho-social support for millions of people caught in violence and armed conflict.

A survey finds more than one in five people in conflict-affected areas live with a mental health condition ranging from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress. That is three times more than the general population worldwide.

Despite the growing problem, the International Committee of the Red Cross says mental health conditions among people subjected to war and violence are generally overlooked. It warns the hidden wounds will have long-term, even life-threatening impacts, if left untreated.

Ida Andersen is ICRC lead psychologist for Africa. She works with people in crisis in countries such as Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Burundi and South Sudan. She says people exposed to extreme violence often have sleep disorders, including insomnia or nightmares. Some suffer from schizophrenia, become overly aggressive or have suicidal tendencies.

She tells VOA on Skype from Nairobi that mental health needs for victims of war are as important as water, food and shelter. She says therapeutic help must be part of an integrated response.

“Mental health and psycho-social needs need to be considered along with other needs and the response to them should occur simultaneously…It is about providing what is needed as soon as it is needed," said Andersen.

Andersen says talking about problems is what works best with adults in distress. Drawing, however, works best with children.

“We carry out these mental health and psycho-social interventions where we use drawings as a way of allowing the child to express him- or herself," said Andersen. "These children have often times experienced terrible violence and they barely have the vocabulary to talk about it and through the drawings, they are able to express a lot of things.”

The Red Cross is calling for increased recognition of the mental health consequences of humanitarian crises. It says investing in mental health and psycho-social support saves lives. Such investment also reaps economic benefits in post-conflict environments. It notes every dollar invested in treatment for depression can lead to a $5 return in better health.