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UNHCR urges prioritization of mental health support in coronavirus response

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UNHCR urges prioritization of mental health support in coronavirus response

14 May 2020
Brazil. Life in Rondon 3 temporary shelter
Feelings of isolation contribute to poor mental health and refugees are particularly vulnerable. A Venezuelan refugee sits alone on a bench at a shelter in Brazil, March 28, 2019.

The consequences of coronavirus are taking a huge toll on the mental health of refugees, displaced and stateless people, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is warning today.

“COVID-19 is not just a physical health crisis but it is now also triggering a mental health crisis. While many refugees and internally displaced people are remarkably resilient and are able to move forward despite having experienced violence or persecution first-hand, their capacities to cope are now being stretched to the limit,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

“We are now receiving reports of increasing mental health issues and needs among those displaced. Fear of infection, confinement and isolation measures, stigma, discrimination, loss of livelihoods and uncertainty about the future are all contributing factors”.

Given the widespread socio-economic damage inflicted by the pandemic, UNHCR is particularly worried that for many refugees, the loss of daily wages and livelihoods is resulting in psychosocial hardship. Extremely concerning is that some are now reporting self-harm owing to these pressures.

For refugees who had also sought psychosocial support through community interaction, social gatherings or the observance of religious rituals, physical distancing measures and mobility restrictions also affect their ability to cope with emotional distress.

While the consequences of the pandemic are inducing or aggravating pre-existing mental health conditions, measures to curb the spread of the virus are also impacting the availability of assistance. Providing mental health support and care becomes more difficult during lock-down and restricted travel, staffing levels may be reduced, refugees are often unable to travel to reach care and many face-to-face group-based activities have been cancelled.

“The overwhelming majority, 84 per cent, of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing regions and their access to quality mental health care was already very limited even before the pandemic. Now at this devastating juncture, with coronavirus causing great physical and mental affliction, the need to invest in continued health services, including mental health, and ensuring their accessibility to all is as evident and critical as ever,” said Grandi.

To try and ensure the continuity of mental health and psychosocial support services for refugees and displaced people, UNHCR is stepping up efforts and adapting modalities wherever possible.

Some mental health services are now being provided remotely, including through multi-lingual telephone hotlines or over the internet through online sessions. For those with severe and complex mental health conditions, care is being ensured through remote or direct support delivered in safe ways, including through home visits. Provisions are also made to ensure that people who need medication can continue treatment during lockdown.

UNHCR is also working where possible to scale up the mental health support capacity of its pre-existing community-based protection networks and training primary healthcare workers, camp management personnel, community outreach volunteers and telephone hotline staff in Psychological First Aid.

In some locations, community volunteers already mobilized in COVID-19 prevention and response efforts are also conducting outreach to refugees and internally displaced people on mental health awareness and on coping with distress.

Echoing the UN-wide call for action, UNHCR continues to appeal for urgent support to ensure the availability and continuation of mental health and psychosocial services for refugees and those displaced. These services must be considered “essential” services and form part of national responses to COVID-19.


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