By Lauren Odderstol May 19, 2021 Topics: Mental Health Refugee Crisis Rohingya Refugees There’s an unspoken pandemic in our world. Physical health issues are often easy to identify and treat. A broken bone, a curable illness, a fever. While we’re concerned with caring for our physical well-being, our mental health often goes unnoticed. Our world is heavy with violence, trauma and abuse. When you bear the weight of these burdens without support, it can become a dangerous undercurrent of emotional wreckage. A pandemic on the verge of destroying us, unless we pay attention. At Medical Teams, we say that we care for the whole person. What does that actually mean? We provide access to care for people living in disaster or emergency situations. Sometimes, those are short-term. Many times, the emergency goes on much longer than anyone anticipates. Syrians taking refuge in Lebanon for the last ten years. Rohingya living in the world’s densest refugee camp in Bangladesh since 2017 when genocide broke out in Myanmar. People fleeing ongoing violence in the Congo living in settlements in Uganda. These are people who were living out their livelihoods like any one of us, but who had to leave it all behind to save their lives, often enduring incredible trauma in the path. What does that do to a person? If they arrive battered and bruised, after caring for the physical, how do you care for their mental and emotional well-being? May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In honor of the conversation around mental health, we want to peel back the curtain a bit around our own mental health work. It exists almost everywhere we operate. Because this is how we care for the whole person. This is where we see people doing the brave work of facing the horrors of their past or their own mental health issues in order to heal. While we provide the space and resources for it, they are the ones doing the hard and courageous work. In Kutupalong, Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of people are taking refuge from the terrors of genocide, many are struggling with mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our team of psychologists are available to those who need it. They help to identify barriers to good mental health through private consultations. They provide a space for healing through group counseling sessions. Hepzoor, an 18-year-old man who fled Myanmar with his family, describes his experience through our mental health program. Though his journey was not easy, he emerged from the program transformed. Here is his experience, told in his own words. Hepzoor’s Story “When I was in Myanmar, I was studying in 9th standard. One day while I was returning from school, I saw there was a conflict between the villagers. All on a sudden, Myanmar military shot many people. They burned our houses with fire along with other properties. I lost my friends, neighbors, house, as well as education. It was totally a horrible situation. Right after that, I fled from Myanmar with my parents and siblings. Then, we reached Bangladesh. I was a student in Myanmar, and in Bangladesh, I have no opportunity for higher education. I was not satisfied with the camp environment – the living conditions, social problems, and movement restriction. I was struggling with sleeplessness and recalling past events like my house, education, opportunity, friends and my favorite things. As I was struggling with health issues, I noticed that community volunteers were assisting many people with similar problems within the camp to improve their condition. Through them, I arrived at the MHPSS (Mental Health and Psychosocial Support) center. After sharing my problems with the medical doctor, I was identified with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. So, he referred me to a psychologist. The psychologist’s assessment said that I had a depressed mood, fatigue, sleep disturbance, hopelessness, irritability, headache, recurrent, involuntary distressing memory of the traumatic events, negative thoughts, and anger. With all these problems, my daily life function and sleep were hampered. Additionally, I lost my job five months ago due to the COVID situation, so that made me insecure about the future. The psychologist explained to me that this is a treatable condition and assured me that, if I participate in mental health counseling group sessions, I will recover soon and will be able to maintain everyday life. The first and second sessions were about breathing relaxation for reducing irritability or stress. After the 2nd session, I was not interested and stopped coming. My problems started to increase, then our community psychosocial volunteers visited my home, communicated with family members and encouraged me to continue the sessions. After their motivation, I started the sessions again. In the third session, the psychologist started intervention with activity scheduling, graded task assignment and self-reward, and sleep hygiene. In the fourth session, the psychologist worked with communication analysis that helped me to reduce conflicts with community members and mobilize resources that developed me to increase socialization. In every session, I made good progress from the previous session. One of Hepzoor’s group counseling sessions in Kutupalong. In the fifth session, I tried to find my strength and previous skills. Then, I used this skill to support others and shared my knowledge with others. In this way, I could use my education and started learning. In the sixth session, the psychologist gave me some homework to do at home and some physical exercise, which increased my functional level. By the seventh session, the psychologist helped me to accept my reality – to turn my negative thinking into positive thinking. In the eighth session, I was able to make the decision for myself and accepted my reality. All these sessions significantly improved my physical and mental health. Now, I’m stress-free, having sound sleep, doing regular activities properly, and I’ve started working again. I am really grateful for the treatment I received from Medical Teams. I stopped coming here, but they didn’t stop. The support they have provided brought a new life within me. I will use this knowledge to support others in the community. Hepzoor smiling at one of his final group counseling sessions. Mental health is often stigmatized, no matter where you are in the world. It is often misunderstood and considered taboo. But it’s clear to see how – with time, support, and investment – mental health support is desperately needed and beneficial. It can help someone heal from horrible trauma. It can transform a life. To be sure, it’s not easy work to do. I believe as humans, sometimes we wish we would rather have a quick fix for our mental health issue than dive into the trauma. What I love about Hepzoor’s story is that, even though he stopped for a minute, he ultimately followed this journey to healing. Maybe it did get hard for a minute. Maybe he didn’t see the benefit right away. But through the support of his Community Health Workers and his family, he decided to come back. And the transformation is clear. Hepzoor isn’t alone in the battle for mental well-being. At Medical Teams, we are always serving people around the world with mental health and psychosocial support programs. We see transformation happen in these courageous people who choose to lean in and heal from their past trauma. We see how this work cares for the whole person. Lauren Odderstol Medical Teams Producer, Storyteller & Photographer Help support other people in need of mental health support in Bangladesh here.