Why should MHPSS be an integral part of emergency assistance?

When mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) is an integral part of emergency assistance, the overall effectiveness of aid is greater. This applies to all forms of emergency assistance, such as food, water, sanitation, healthcare or shelter.

MHPSS ensures better emergency response

Research over the last several decades has shown that MHPSS is effective in crisis situations. Mental wellbeing is crucial in:

  • enabling people to rebuild their lives;
  • reducing poverty;
  • creating peace;
  • preventing sexual violence;
  • rebuilding affected areas and economies.

Investments in basic necessities such as shelter, water, food and medical care are more effective when combined with psychosocial support programmes.

Standalone MHPSS programmes

When MHPSS programmes are offered separately from the emergency response, they do not help with the broader acceptance that mental illness exists and matters. Mental health needs must be addressed right from the start of a humanitarian operation. Addressing them at a later stage becomes more complex and obtaining funding becomes more difficult. This makes it harder to help people recover from the crisis. 

Relief efforts themselves can also have unintended negative effects on recipients’ psychosocial wellbeing. For instance, when aid workers treat them impersonally or disregard local cultural values and social mechanisms. This risk must always be considered when designing emergency response. 

Integrating MHPSS into emergency assistance is possible

Most humanitarian organisations now recognise that MHPSS is crucially important in crisis situations. But they can still find it difficult to fit MHPSS into all their activities. The main challenges are as follows:

  • There are not enough people who know how to provide MHPSS in crisis situations and who can coordinate the efforts of different humanitarian organisations. Increased awareness of the importance of MHPSS makes it important to train more people to provide it.
  • Talking about mental problems is difficult for many people – including aid workers and politicians – and in many communities. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness and a general lack of knowledge, people often don’t see psychosocial wellbeing as a basic need.
  • Emergency aid programmes often have a short duration, but psychosocial care may need to be provided for a longer time in order to be effective. A longer-term approach is therefore needed.

All this makes it difficult to build a resilient MHPSS system, but that is what affected populations and care workers need in order to cope with a future crisis. 

It has been demonstrated in recent years that it is humane, sensible and feasible for MHPSS to be embedded in emergency response from the very start. This certainly held true during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a major impact on humanitarian assistance. 

The Netherlands is helping to develop an MHPSS package

The Netherlands is helping to develop the MHPSS Minimum Service Package. This package will contain demonstrably effective activities which will make it easier to integrate MHPSS into emergency aid efforts. Go to the Minimum Service Package website for an orientation video about how it works.