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Mental health in humanitarian emergencies

Humanitarian emergencies, which can arise from armed conflicts and natural disasters, lead to a wide range of urgent needs among survivors. For example, grief and acute distress affect most people and are considered to be natural, transient, psychological responses to extreme adversity. However, for a minority of the population, extreme adversity triggers mental disorders, such as depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder or prolonged grief disorder, all of which can severely undermine daily functioning. In addition, people with chronic mental disorders existent before an emergency, become even more vulnerable to abandonment or abuse issues, and often present with an increase of symptoms. Furthermore, within humanitarian emergencies, local mental health care resources are often lacking or severely overburdened and mental health care workers are overwhelmed.

The mhGAP Humanitarian Intervention Guide

In these situations, the only viable solution is to enable general health care staff (doctors, nurses and others) to identify and manage the most important mental health needs of the population. For this purpose, WHO and UNHCR have developed the Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) Humanitarian Intervention Guide (HIG).This is a simple, practical guide with first line management recommendations for mental, neurological and substance use conditions for non-specialist health care providers within humanitarian emergencies where access to specialists and treatment options is limited.

This guide contains ten brief modules on the assessment and management of:

  • Acute stress (ACU)
  • Grief (GRI)
  • Moderate to severe depressive disorder (DEP)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Psychosis (PSY)
  • Epilepsy/seizures (EPI)
  • Intellectual disability (ID)
  • Harmful use of alcohol and drugs (SUB)
  • Suicide (SUI)
  • Other significant mental health complaints (OTH).

Additionally, the document also contains:

  • Advice for clinic managers
  • General principles of care within humanitarian emergency settings
  • Instructions on stress reduction
  • A glossary of terms
  • Information on Mental Health categories in the Health Information System
Detection and diagnosis
Treatment, care and rehabilitation
Training, education and capacity building
All disorders
Humanitarian and conflict health
Middle East
North America
Central America and the Caribbean
South America
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