New Guidelines to Improve Psychological and Social Assistance in Emergencies

Date Publish: 
Thursday, September 13, 2007 - 16:00
New guidelines from the IASC aim to improve the psychosocial support that humanitarian agencies extend to survivors of conflicts and natural disasters, like these women from Albay, Philippines, who lost loved ones and homes to Typhoon Durian. © IOM 2007 (Photo: Mia Goloy)

International humanitarian agencies have agreed on a new set of
guidelines to address the mental health and psychosocial needs of
survivors as part of the response to conflict or disaster.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on Mental
Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings clearly state
that protecting and promoting mental health and psychosocial
well-being is the responsibility of all humanitarian agencies and
workers. Until now, many people involved in emergency response have
viewed mental health and psychosocial well-being as the sole
responsibility of psychiatrists and psychologists.

"These new IASC guidelines are a significant step towards
providing better care and support to people in disaster- and
conflict-affected areas worldwide," said Dr. Ala Alwan, Assistant
Director-General for Health Action in Crises at the World Health
Organization.

Recent conflicts and natural disasters in Afghanistan,
Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Sudan among many others involve
substantial psychological and social suffering in the short term,
which if not adequately addressed can lead to long-term mental
health and psychosocial problems. These can threaten peace,
people's human rights and development.

Yet, when communities and services provide protection and
support, most individuals have been shown to be remarkably
resilient. While this is increasingly recognized, many actors
identified the need for a coherent, systematic approach that can be
applied in large emergencies. The guidelines address this gap.

The guidelines have been published by the IASC, a committee that
is responsible for world-wide humanitarian policy and consists of
heads of relevant UN and other intergovernmental agencies, Red
Cross and Red Crescent agencies, and NGO consortia. The guidelines
have been developed by staff from 27 agencies through a highly
participatory process.

“Drafting the guidelines has been a joint effort of a
broad range of key actors in the diverse sectors of humanitarian
aid and we are happy to see the synergy and commitment,” said
Mr. Jim Bishop, Vice President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice
of InterAction, the consortium of US-based international NGOs.

The guidelines lay out the essential first steps in protecting
or promoting people's mental health and psychosocial well-being in
the midst of emergencies. They identify useful practices and flag
potentially harmful ones, and clarify how different approaches
complement one another.

“The new guidelines present a major step forward to much
better protect the mental health and psychosocial well-being of
displaced persons using an integrated approach in collaboration
with all partners” said Ms. Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, Deputy
Director, Division for International Protection Services at the
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees.

The guidelines have a clear focus on social interventions and
supports. They emphasize the importance of building on local
resources such as teachers, health workers, healers, and
women’s groups to promote psychosocial well-being. They focus
on strengthening social networks and building on existing ways
community members deal with distress in their lives.

The guidelines include attention to protection and care of
people with severe mental disorders, including severe
trauma-induced disorders, as well as access to psychological first
aid for those in acute distress.

The guidelines stress that the way in which humanitarian aid is
provided can have a substantial impact on people’s mental
health and psychosocial well-being. Treating survivors with dignity
and enabling them to participate in and organize emergency support
is essential.

Coordination of mental health and psychosocial support is
difficult in large emergencies involving numerous agencies.
Affected populations can be overwhelmed by outsiders, and local
contributions to mental health and psychosocial support are easily
marginalised or undermined.

Dr. Bruce Eshaya-Chauvin, Head of the Health and Care Department
at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
Societies, remarked: “Achieving improved psychosocial support
for populations affected by crises requires coordinated action
among all government and non-government and humanitarian actors.
These guidelines give sensible advice on how to achieve
that.”

"These guidelines now need to be transferred from paper into
concrete action at the field level so that those affected by
disasters and conflict will benefit from the work done on them.
NGOs can play a major role in this regard." said Ms. Manisha
Thomas, acting Coordinator of the International Council of
Voluntary Agencies.

These guidelines will be available in different languages and
can be obtained from the href=
"http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/iasc/mentalhealth_psychosocial_support"
target="_blank" title="">IASC website.

Media contact:

Jean-Philippe Chauzy

International Organization for Migration

Tel. + 41 79 285 4366

Email: "mailto:jpchauzy@iom.int">jpchauzy@iom.int