Although mental illness affects 450 million people worldwide, there is only one psychiatrist for every two million people in many parts of the world. Mental illness is one of the great invisible burdens on developing societies, accounting for four of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide. In emergencies, the problem is even greater as the number of people suffering from severe mental disorders increases and people with pre-existing mental illnesses are exposed to new levels of stress.
As part of its holistic approach to health, International Medical Corps incorporates mental health and well-being into its programs to address the psychosocial needs of disaster survivors and help those with pre-existing mental disorders. International Medical Corps has developed innovative models, including community-based psychosocial programming and integration of mental health services into primary health care. In fact, we were a member of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee task force that published the first-ever Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings.
A leader in mental health care in emergency settings, we have implemented mental health programs throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as in the United States following Hurricane Katrina.
A few of our accomplishments in mental health include:
After tending to the immediate needs of the 2004 tsunami victims, International Medical Corps medical teams in Sri Lanka stayed on to train more than one thousand primary health care professionals to identify and treat mental disorders at the primary health care level – a first for a country that has historically endured one of the world’s highest suicide rates. Both the World Health Organization and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health recognized International Medical Corps as the country’s lead agency for mental health. The service model we piloted was subsequently incorporated into Sri Lanka’s national strategy for mental health.
Sierra Leone, a nation of 6 million that endured a decade-long civil war through the 1990s, had just one practicing psychiatrist when International Medical Corps launched a pilot program to integrate mental health care into the community health care system. Our clinics played a significant role in the disarmament and demobilization process: for child soldiers who had been “branded” with the initials “RUF” on their chests, arms or foreheads, our plastic surgeons performed skin grafts to remove these literal scars of war. Removing their scars was a first step toward de-stigmatizing these young combatants—enabling them to return home, and reintegrate into their communities.