Fighting stigma and working from within communities

Janice Cooper and Marian Tankink are experts involved in organising the 7-8 October MHPSS Conference. Both women tell us about their efforts with respect to mental health and psychosocial support in crisis situations. This support is as crucial as food, water and shelter, but its importance is overlooked all too often.

Janice Cooper: The fight against Ebola stigma

Janice is the country lead for the Liberia Mental Health Initiative. She has extensive experience in working with Ebola survivors and their families.

‘There is a lot of stigma attached to Ebola. This prevents people from rebuilding their lives and participating fully in society. So it’s important to tackle this problem. But psychosocial care is also taboo. To a great extent, that’s down to ignorance. We train people, engage in dialogue and help people to tell their stories. This helps counteract the stigma. When people feel understood, they are better able to cope with the situation.

Lack of trust also plays a major role. The level of mutual distrust was already high due to the years of civil war in Liberia. The disease has made people afraid of their own neighbours again. Social cohesion has broken down and it will take a great deal of effort to restore it. Social workers who are active in the community can make a difference.’

Marian Tankink: Belief in a community-based approach

Marian Tankink is a medical anthropologist. She does research and works as a consultant in the area of sexual violence and MHPSS in conflict situations. She focuses primarily on Central Africa in her work.

‘I’m a firm believer in a community-based approach, i.e. working with and from within the community. People are social beings, designed to work together. Conflict shatters social relationships and the consequences can be dire. You see that people in conflict situations develop all kinds of problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, nightmares and depression, and these can lead to other issues like eating disorders, lethargy and social withdrawal. If you tackle these problems quickly and in the right way, with attention for interpersonal contact, you see that people are able to get on with their lives sooner. You’ll even see socioeconomic effects fairly quickly. Someone once told me that peace starts with peace of mind. To accomplish anything at all, you need to be open to others and be able to work together with others.’

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