Mental health care saves lives. Because Medical Teams knows how important mental health care is, supporting the mental well-being of the people we serve is one of our priorities.

When the word emergency comes up, you might picture ruined buildings or a devastated city. Usually, we equate disasters or emergencies with destruction you can see. The toll of an emergency is usually measured by the number of people wounded or dying.

But that picture doesn’t take into account the less visible effects of living through a life-threatening event. When people are forced from their homes by natural disasters or violence, it’s not only their physical bodies that can suffer. Living through a distressing event can have an enormous impact on a person’s mental health.

What is mental health?

Mental health refers to our mind’s ability to cope and care for itself. When a person’s mental well-being is good, they can handle the everyday stress of life. They are able to learn, grow, and adapt. They can take care of their families and contribute to their communities. They can realize their own potential.

Many things affect a person’s mental health, from diagnosed conditions to traumatic events. Mental well-being exists on a spectrum. Everyone’s experience is different. But one thing is certain: mental health is a part of physical health.

A mental health professional poses in his clinic with a wide smile.
Dr. Salim smiles in his clinic in the Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement.

Dr. Salim, a Medical Teams psychiatrist in Uganda, puts it best:

“A healthy mind is a healthy body. Strong mind, strong body.”

That’s why, at Medical Teams, we care for the whole person — physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. When we respond to an emergency, we take the mental health of the people we care for seriously.

What impacts mental well-being?

In a disaster, almost everyone’s mental health will be negatively affected. How people react to a life-threatening event will vary. One person might have difficulties sleeping. Another person might feel tired no matter how much they sleep. Others might feel irritable or angry. Some people might have physical aches and pains with no obvious cause.

Usually, these symptoms go away with time. For many people, getting basic needs met — like health care, food, and shelter — is enough to start feeling better. With those needs met, they can rely on relationships and their own self-care routines to support their mental health.

But for some people, the emergency will have a lasting impact on their mental health. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 5 people who have lived through a disaster will develop a serious mental health condition. That means 22% of people experience a condition like depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

Global suicide statistics for displaced people are difficult to find, but self-harm and suicide are widespread issues of concern. Dr. Salim estimates that in 2020 alone more than 100 people in Rwamwanja died by suicide.

Also, for people who already have a mental health condition, an emergency can make it much worse. They might not be able to get medication, or they might lose the support of a trusted counselor.

Robinah’s road to recovery

If you met Robinah today, you wouldn’t believe that this vibrant, funny, and hopeful woman was once so weak she was unable to get out of bed. But it’s true. After a difficult move across Uganda to the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Robinah began experiencing dramatic symptoms of depression.

She describes how she felt, saying, “I was very weak and couldn’t breathe well. I’d get heart palpitations and I was always afraid. I had too many thoughts in my mind, and I couldn’t eat or sleep. I had a heaviness in my chest that I couldn’t explain, and it got heavier each day. My heart would pump so hard, and this would make me restless.”

Eventually, Robinah’s depression became severe. She was unable to work or support herself anymore. Even things she used to love, like gardening or spending time with her grandchildren, stopped bringing her joy.

Robinah made the courageous decision to get help. After visiting a Medical Teams clinic, they urged her into counseling. Through counseling, Robinah was able to talk through her difficulties. She learned coping techniques to use when her heart races or she has anxious thoughts.

a woman poses with a basket of maize outside a classroom
Robinah, who struggled with depression, holds a basket of maize outside the classroom where she works with her daughter in the Nakivale Refugee Settlement.

Today, Robinah is healthy again. She exclaims,

“I keep saying to my daughter, ‘I’m alive today because of Medical Teams!’”

Because she was able to get help with her depression, she now works alongside her daughter and can play with her grandchildren.

How does Medical Teams treat mental health?

No two disasters or emergencies are alike. And how different cultures treat mental health varies. Sometimes, the topic of mental health is taboo or stigmatized. That’s why we adapt the mental health care we provide to the community we’re serving.

In all emergencies, we help care for people’s mental health by providing health care. We help people access nutrition services and get basic necessities, like medicine. Making sure that people have their basic needs met can be the first step in helping them feel better.

Once people’s basic needs are met, our providers and community leaders may hold support groups. Many people need an outlet to talk about what they’re experiencing. Knowing they aren’t alone is critical to helping people recover their mental well-being.

Going the extra mile for mental health

We also hold sessions about the importance of mental health. Sometimes, people don’t know that their symptoms connect to what they’ve experienced. In fact, even increasing awareness of mental health is a step toward improving people’s lives.

We train all our staff and volunteers in psychological first aid. Psychological first aid is a set of skills that can be used in an everyday situation, including in an emergency setting, that helps support a person’s mental health.

We look for people who need help or might be having an emotional reaction. We listen to them with compassion and care. We try to connect them to helpful resources.

In some circumstances, we offer group and individual counseling. Mental health counselors can also help people overcome more severe symptoms. In some cases, they might refer them to other providers for help with a mental health condition.

When people have seen difficult things or experienced loss, knowing where to get help can make their lives feel more stable. It’s especially important to allow people the choice of how they receive care. Choice gives them back a sense of agency when so many things are out of their control.

Mental health care saves lives

An older woman holds a child in her arms and stands next to another smiling woman.
Because Robinah (center), got help with her depression, she’s able to enjoy her grandchildren and help her daughter, Jenifa, again.

As God wishes peace for people in both body and mind, so too does Medical Teams. Our belief that mental health is an important part of a person’s health drives our approach. When one person’s mental health suffers, it doesn’t only affect them. It affects both their family and communities, too. This is especially true in emergency situations.

Mental health care is health care.

Robinah’s story illustrates how important mental health care is — because she was able to get help, her daughter has her mother back. She can play with her grandchildren. Her life, which had been ruled by fear, became joyful again.

You can help bring about a world where God’s light shines into the lives of all those who are struggling by donating to Medical Teams International.

Help provide life-saving medical care to women like Robinah by donating today.