’A large part of the population needs mental health and psychosocial support’

Voices from the field

The war in Yemen is having a big impact on people’s mental health. ‘According to a recent study, some 22% need help,’ says Esubalew Haile Wondimu. A native of Ethiopia, he coordinates the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Programme in Yemen. MHPSS is an important focus of Dutch foreign policy.

Enlarge image Man met mondkapje achter bureau en monitor aan de muur
Esubalew tijdens een van zijn presentaties over MHPSS

Esubalew during one of his presentations on MHPSS.

The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO), which implements the programme, sent Esubalew to Yemen to help organisations that are active in the area of mental health do their work. There is a desperate need for mental healthcare in the country. As a trained psychiatrist, Esubalew is an expert in the area of MHPSS. He also has many years of experience with coordinating projects in crisis regions. He spent the last six years in South Sudan, where he was responsible for more than 35 centres providing MHPSS. He was also vice-chair of the national MHPSS working group.

Shortages, refugees and lobbying

‘The work here is complex and challenging. There are shortages of everything. And there are almost three million internally displaced people in Yemen, who are suffering amid the ongoing violence. Aid organisations need more funding and staff. As coordinator of the MHPSS working group, it’s my job to support organisations so that MHPSS activities and services in Yemen can be scaled up,’ Esubalew explains. ‘The working group is made up of representatives of UN organisations, local, national and international humanitarian organisations and relevant Yemeni government bodies. I map all activities, identify where there is scope for improving cooperation and lobby for more personnel and resources. Using internationally recognised standards and best practices, I also help partner organisations increase their theoretical and practical knowledge about mental healthcare.’

Enlarge image Drie mannen en vrouw met mondkapje voor gebouw met arabisch schrift
Esubalew meeting with local partners at a psychiatric hospital.

Working for RVO

‘The Netherlands has a special team of experts that can be deployed in emergency situations worldwide – usually water-related disasters. In 2020 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the initiative to expand the team’s remit to mental health and psychosocial support. After I registered as an expert with RVO, I could apply for jobs in this new programme. And that’s how I ended up in Yemen.’

Enlarge image Man met mondkapje achter bureau kijkt naar beeldscherm
Esubalew at the WHO office in Aden.

Mental healthcare in the spotlight

‘If there’s one thing the coronavirus crisis has changed for the better, it’s recognition for mental healthcare. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people’s lives are restricted by lockdowns or other pandemic control measures. It’s made people and governments aware of the importance of good mental health. Jobs, shelter, food and drink are essential, but so is a sound mind. I think this spotlight on mental health will directly impact on my work. Attention for MHPSS in a development context has already grown in recent years. The Netherlands, for instance, has advocated for some time now that MHPSS be integrated into the standard aid package.’

Leaving family behind is harder

‘As someone who grew up among Somalian refugees in Ethiopia and as a development professional, it always feels good to travel to crisis regions to help people in need. There are security risks in Yemen, but I’m in good hands with the World Health Organization (WHO), which works hard to ensure our safety. But it is becoming increasingly hard to leave my wife and two young daughters (aged 2 and 4) behind.’

Connection with the Netherlands

‘Thanks to RVO I’m now working as an MHPSS expert in Yemen. It’s great to have this connection with the Netherlands. The country has always had a special place in my heart, thanks to my uncle who got his PhD in hydrogeology in the Netherlands. His stories have always stayed with me. So who knows, maybe I’ll come to the Netherlands for work or study one day.’

DSS water projects

Esubalew has been seconded to Yemen via the Dutch Surge Support (DSS) programme. At the initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the MHPSS programme was added to the DSS in 2020. The programme is being implemented by RVO, in collaboration with WHO and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The website Aiddata.rvo.nl takes you to a database of development projects implemented by RVO as of 2015, including all DSS water projects. You can search the database by location, sector or programme. Read more about how the two programmes work in this article about the DSS in Beirut, Lebanon.