Each May, Medical Teams celebrates Mental Health Month alongside humanitarian organizations and mental health advocates all over the world. Mental Health Month is a time set aside to bring awareness to the importance of mental health care. At Medical Teams, we’re focused especially on the millions of displaced people who struggle with their mental health.

Many migrant and refugee communities have much higher rates of mental health conditions than host populations. Because we care for the whole person — emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically — caring for the mental health of displaced people is a priority. We don’t just treat someone’s body, we also consider their mental well-being.

As a result, we’re confronted daily by how distressing events impact the people we care for. It has become a quiet crisis. People are suffering, and not only from physical ailments.

The World Health Organization estimates that, of people who have experienced war or other conflict in the last 10 years, 1 in 5 people will have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health conditions.

Read on to see why displacement can have a negative impact on someone’s well-being and how we’re helping heal!

Why displacement is distressing

It can be hard to imagine the reality that many of the people we serve face when we’re safe and comfortable in our homes. Disasters, violence, or famine might feel very far away. But knowledge breeds empathy. Understanding what people experience can help us see why they might experience a mental health condition. Here are just a few of the challenges people face that might impact their well-being.

Prior to leaving

While each person’s experience and story is different, many of the people we serve face adversity even before they make the decision to leave home. In most countries people leave, the economic situation is dire — there are few jobs, inflation is very high, or resources are scarce. That lack of opportunity can have a negative effect on people’s well-being because they might struggle to support themselves or their families. They may feel a sense of hopelessness, anger, or lack of purpose that can lead to or be caused by a mental health condition.

It’s also relatively common for the people we serve to have been exposed to violence or persecution before leaving. When someone is seeking refuge in another country, it’s because they’ve been affected by violence in some way. Their lives are threatened. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that life-threatening events can hurt a person’s sense of well-being.

While migrating or fleeing

It bears repeating that everyone’s experience is different. Still, most of the people we serve have also experienced life-threatening journeys as they make their way toward places of safety or better opportunity. Many of the people we serve face long days of walking with few resources, taking with them only what they’re able to carry — if they had time to pack anything at all. Some travel for days without food or water. Others experience violence, robbery, or detention. This kind of physical and emotional exhaustion can take a horrific toll on someone’s mental health.

Another common experience is that people can’t access any health care services while they’re migrating or fleeing violence. The result is that chronic conditions, or even minor injuries or illness, become exacerbated or life-threatening because there aren’t any clinics or help along the way. That can also deeply affect how well someone feels mentally, especially if they’re in pain for a long time.

Post-migration or settlement

Though it depends on the context, people often continue to face challenges to their mental health after they’ve reached a place they can settle. It may still be difficult to access health care and other support services. People may also not be able to get their basic needs met. Without things like health care, a safe home, or regular food and clean water, it can be difficult to feel stable. Having our basic needs met is the first step toward rebuilding a healthy sense of mental well-being.

Social isolation and a lack of cultural assimilation is another barrier to mental health. Being separated from family members or other support networks — like friends, church groups, or even people who speak the same language — can negatively impact people. A lack of social connection can be deeply distressing.

How Medical Teams heals

Marimar volunteers in Colombia, helping connect families to care. Photo by Lauren Odderstol.

Medical Teams helps care for the well-being of the people we serve in a variety of ways. One of the most important ways we do this is by providing loving medical care. When people are afforded the dignity of health care, and the comfort of knowing where to turn for help, they can begin to rebuild a sense of stability and safety. In turn, their mental well-being improves.

Additionally, our providers and many of our volunteers are trained in psychological first aid. Psychological first aid is a set of skills that can be used in any situation, but are especially helpful when assessing people who have experienced adverse events. Caregivers look for people who might need additional help, or who are having an emotional reaction. Then, they can connect them to further resources.

Depending on the country program, we also offer group and individual counseling. Our support groups are another way that people begin to re-establish networks of friends and people to rely on. Knowing they’re not alone is critical to their well-being. We also leverage our community health workers to help people forge connections in their communities. Community health workers themselves get a stronger sense of purpose and belonging through our programs.

The importance of mental health care

During Mental Health Month, and always, we’re committed to caring for the mental health of the people we serve. To us, “health care” includes helping restore someone’s sense of well-being. That’s why we listen to, comfort, and love every patient we see.

Are you moved to help our neighbors around the world this Mental Health Month? Join The Pulse, our monthly giving program, to have the most impact around the world!