Humanitarian and Development Response, Mental Health

Psychosocial support in crises and protracted displacement – leave no one behind

By Toluwalola Kasali

Conflict, violence, and human rights violations have forced 50.8 million people to flee their homes and livelihoods to camps and host communities within their countries.  To put the magnitude of internal displacement in perspective, 50.8 million people are equivalent to the population size of Chile, Sri Lanka, Norway, Botswana, and Namibia.

Displaced persons experience flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and depression due to the trauma. In this state of mind, they struggle to stay involved in school, skills acquisition, and employment. Sometimes, they display traits like anger and disruptive behaviour, which are reactions to the severe stressors of living in displacement. A combination of these factors affect their mental health and psychosocial well-being.

Stories like that of Zainab, who lives in the Area 1 IDP Camp, Abuja, Nigeria are commonplace – “I have no job and lost all my property. When I think about my loved ones, I cannot sleep, and I feel dizzy.”

Living in displacement often becomes prolonged due to on-going conflicts and the absence of durable solutions – this deepens their vulnerabilities and gradually weakens their resilience. Women and children are especially vulnerable targets of abuse and exploitation, including sexual and gender-based violence. The stigma and discrimination create a barrier to sharing their experiences and seeking support, leading to isolation.

Therefore, it is essential to prioritise mental health and psychosocial support, integrating them in all phases of social programmes for displaced persons. This would require coordination between national governments, non-government organisations, humanitarian, and development partners at national and international levels.

Building community-based interventions

The breakdown in communal structures creates a need for community-based interventions that are complementary and can be integrated into health and social centres as well as learning systems. Using a combination of culturally appropriate counselling, focus groups, games, safe spaces, and emotional support, displaced persons can improve their self-esteem and state of mind.

For example, during a hairdressing training class, Fatima, a 20-years old female who has been living in an IDP camp in Area 1, Abuja for five years, said, “The training has helped me to stop thinking. I am happy because I have people that care about me. The social worker has helped to reduce my burden.”

In the right state of mind, displaced persons can build on resources made available to them in order to leave the camp and start a new life within a supportive community. Rashida also lives in the same camp as Fatima. She received psychosocial support alongside vocational training. She received a business start-up grant, leveraged her social ties (network), and built on her hairdressing skills. She has now been able to leave the camp, open a small home-based salon, and integrate into a neighbouring community.

To build a truly inclusive society where no one is left behind, it is critical to prioritise the psychosocial needs of this vulnerable group and provide them the opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity. Psychosocial interventions should be provided alongside traditional humanitarian assistance and development programmes that are community-based.

Making a case for social investment

To make a case for investment in psychosocial and mental health support for displaced persons,   it is necessary to realise that psychosocial support creates both intrinsic benefits (improved self-confidence, state of mind, and well-being) and instrumental benefits (improved ability to attend school, work, and participate in skills training). The resulting improvements in quality of life, learning, and productivity, will support better future earnings, which will reduce government spending on unemployment benefits and social safety net programmes. They also become economic contributors to their households, community, and the economy as a whole. This makes a good case for social investment.

This social investment will require predictable and sustainable funding, which will need to be prioritised in national socioeconomic plans and backed by strong political will and commitment. It is also critical that mental health programmes are included in national policies and laws specific to internally displaced persons in order to ensure sustainability.

Funding through external grants, donors, and international organisations help in the short-term. However, in the medium-long term, national governments must take the lead by eliminating spending inefficiencies, increasing domestic revenues, and improving governance to free up funds to incorporate the needs of Internally Displaced Persons into national programmes.

Where innovative taxes are considered for psychosocial and mental health programmes, there should be an assessment of the capacity to effectively impose and collect those taxes. Discussions should also be clear to determine whether all of the revenues will be earmarked specifically for these programmes.

An investment in mental health today is an investment in this generation’s psychosocial well-being and that of future generations. Therefore, the cost of not funding mental health now is high and detrimental to individuals, households, productive capacity, development, and inclusive economic growth.

Humanitarian and Development Response

Vulnerable children in protracted displacement need education

By Toluwalola Kasali

Children are major victims of conflict. Forty percent of the world’s 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons are children under the age of 18 who face unexpected disruptions to their lives and education. During crises and displacement, children are at risk of exploitation and abuse, especially when they are orphaned or separated from their parents. 

Providing safe spaces for children to express themselves, participate in learning activities, and grow, gives them emotional support and stability. Education empowers them and reduces vulnerabilities to exploitation, violence, child marriage, child labour, and recruitment by armed groups. 

Despite the difficulties faced by children living in displacement, they have not given up on their dreams. They hope to become lawyers, doctors, presidents, general mechanics, carpenters, electricians, and fashion designers, amongst others. Like many other children around the world, their dreams are valid. Education gives children the tools to realise their dreams and access to opportunities. It increases their hope for a better future. However, that hope is gradually eroded when they cannot envision a future outside the four walls of their camp or host community. 

Based on the universal declaration of human rights, everyone has the right to education – this includes forcibly displaced persons. Therefore, a combination of formal, non-formal, and vocational learning programmes such as classroom learning, community-based programmes for children, focus group discussions, mentorship, and vocational skills training should be prioritised in providing humanitarian and development support. 

To achieve improved outcomes, interventions should not ignore the interdependencies between providing nutrition, healthcare (physical and psychosocial support), and education – improving a child’s nutrition, feeding, health, and overall well-being, has a positive impact on development and learning.

While education has clear benefits, there is often an opportunity cost to parents or guardians living in displacement because children often have to help out with errands or go out to earn money. Decisions to allow children to learn are also affected by personal beliefs, language barriers, social and cultural factors. Overcoming such constraints requires a combination of advocacy through trusted camp leaders, information sessions, conditional cash transfer programmes to incentivise enrolment and maintain attendance and other flexible forms of support. These measures should be supported by marketable skills and job programmes to assist households in transitioning into livelihood activities that promote productivity and self-reliance. 

 As crises become increasingly protracted, short-term educational provisions become insufficient. The needs of displaced children should be integrated into National Policy Frameworks, National Education Plans, and Social Safety Net Programmes. Successful implementation would require budgetary support, improved governance structures, increased funding commitment from international partners, basic social infrastructure, trained and highly committed teachers, and strong political will. 

The perspective of displaced persons should not be overlooked in gathering evidence for decision making. Policymakers can use relevant evidence to base interventions on what has been proven to work in displacement situations. Interventions should be tailored to the context of a particular country and local settings to achieve impact. 

In the long-term, access to education for displaced children will create positive externalities, support long-term productivity, and inclusive economic growth.