Recovering from disasters and emergencies includes mental health

There are some impacts of disasters that are easy to see, like flooded roads, burnt down homes, and crumbling buildings. Every year in Canada we respond to disasters and emergencies, providing aid like shelter, food, financial support, and clean-up kits. But these events don’t just leave a physical toll, they can have a huge impact on impacted people’s wellbeing and mental health.

Today is World Mental Health Day, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is calling for increased recognition to the mental health consequences of humanitarian crises. It is also advocating for increased action in addressing the critical gaps that exist in providing mental health and psychosocial (wellbeing) supports and services.

We know that mental health conditions are exacerbated  in populations affected by emergencies. That’s why the Canadian Red Cross works with communities to ensure proper  mental health support in events like this.

We expect a range of feelings and emotions for those who experience disasters and emergencies; some people will  experience extreme distress after unexpected events like the tornadoes that touched down in Ottawa-Gatineau last year, or the Toronto van attack. Sometimes this stress can lead to feelings that don’t easily resolve. We provide emotional support through dedicated  and trained psychosocial support aid workers, and link those affected to natural and community-based supports.. Families, friends, neighbours and community organizations have a role to play to ensure wellbeing of individuals.  We also recognize that every community has its own strengths that can be mobilized when facing adversity. In this regard, we build on existing capacity and let communities take the lead on how to address mental health issues and build their resilience.

The Canadian Red Cross also includes psychosocial and mental health support in our International responses. Conflicts, disasters, and other emergencies can put people into extremely distressing situations – often including people who were already in a vulnerable position.

If left unaddressed, these often hidden wounds can have long-term negative impacts for individuals, families, communities and entire societies. The reality is that more than three quarters of people with severe mental health conditions are not receiving any treatment in low and middle-income countries, where most humanitarian crises occur – where there can be as few as two mental health workers for every 100,000 people.

During a humanitarian crises, early mental health and psychosocial support saves lives and helps to prevent further distress, suffering, and negative coping strategies. It can mean improved physical health and stronger resilience.

We don’t only want to address mental health and wellbeing in the context of disasters and emergencies – because we know they can impact anyone. Psychological First Aid is one of the tools available to learn self care strategies as well as how to offer support to someone experiencing significant distress.  

When we remove stigma from distress and mental health, and make it easier to access mental health and wellbeing supports, we’re creating healthier communities. Investing in local action and support is critical for ensuring better mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian crises, and ultimately saving lives

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