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Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Epidemics Responding to the impact of the Zika Virus

Self-help groups for persons with disabilities in Nicaragua supported by Asopiecad and CBM

Recent years have seen epidemics, for example SARS, Ebola, and Zika. In those tragic scenarios, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) activities have been increasingly acknowledged as an integral part of the response offered by organizations. CBM has contributed to this essential work in providing psychosocial support in epidemics such as Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Latin America.

This article is written by by Dr. Carmen Valle, CBM Mental Health Technical Advisor.

An epidemic is the rapid spread of infectious disease to a large number of people in a short period of time. Epidemics often occur in the context of humanitarian crises, due to overcrowding of displaced persons, unsafe water and poor sanitation, and inadequate shelter that increase risk of communicable diseases such as acute respiratory infections, diarrhoea, measles and malaria.

Recent years have also seen epidemics that have themselves been a crisis, for example SARS, Ebola, and Zika epidemics.  In those tragic scenarios, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) activities have been increasingly acknowledged as an integral part of the response offered by organizations and the field has developed in recent years to offer a robust frame for action.

This applies equality to the context of outbreaks and epidemics, where, in addition to the much needed public health and medical approaches, a strong MHPSS response is vital to:
  1. Address the distress that epidemics cause in the affected populations: The most common psychological reactions to stress can include anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, difficulty concentrating or relating to others, and fear. Stigma is also a great challenge and further contributes to the distress suffered in these situations. Stigma is faced by those that have become ill, but also by their relatives, health care workers and other frontline professionals, survivors, etc. In addition to the mentioned reactions, individuals and communities have to overcome the grief of losing their loved ones and the anguish of many associated financial losses. Therefore, in these circumstances psychosocial support may be useful or necessary in helping individuals recover.
  2. Contribute to the control of the outbreaks by enabling behavioural change of the persons exposed to them: Fear, misinformation, superstition and rumours can be the biggest challenges in trying to stop the spread of a disease. Community mobilization activities that focus on providing psychosocial support while enabling the dissemination of unified key messages, increasing awareness and reducing stigma, can be very efficient in stopping the spread of diseases, even more than mass media campaigns.

CBM’s MHPSS work in epidemics

CBM has contributed to this essential work in providing psychosocial support in epidemics such as Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Latin America, as well as in the context of broader disasters such as Haiti, Nepal and Ecuador earthquakes. In the context of the Ebola response, CBM’s MHPSS response contributed to give access to psychological care to those affected by the disease, their relatives and communities, to the brave frontline responders, those in quarantined homes and survivors. The adaptation of the Psychological First Aids  guide to be used in the context of a highly infectious disease like Ebola was a first essential step in this response.

The Zika epidemic requires a different and broad approach, given the disabling conditions that the virus can be linked to. A comprehensive MHPSS response to Zika can bring positive outcomes in 3 different levels:
  1. Psychosocial support to pregnant women and families planning to have babies. CBM’s partners in the region are already supporting pregnant women in preventing postpartum depression and facilitating a healthy relationship with the new baby using WHO’s Thinking Healthy tool. This kind of programme can very positively impact the mental well-being of pregnant women in affected countries.
  2. MHPSS for the broader communities, to tackle the issues brought about by the stress of dealing with an epidemic in the community. Psychological Interventions can positively impact the capacity of the families and communities to respond and adapt to the epidemic and to cope well.
  3. Support to families with children that are born with microcephaly and other neurological consequences. CBM’s experience in supporting children with disability, including Cerebral Palsy, is allowing the adaptation of tools and materials so they can be used to improve the lives of children affected by these syndromes, as well as promoting a better relationship of the parents and family members with the children, hence impacting the families’ wellbeing.
  4. Contribute to the debate with the human rights approach to disabilities, breaking the circle of stigma and contributing with a perspective that doesn’t highlight just the fear and negative perceptions around Zika, but offers a positive vision of a society where persons with disabilities are not discriminated against and where children with disabilities have as many chances to live a good life as other children, contributing to a diverse society. 

The network of CBM’s partners across the affected countries that already have extensive experience in supporting persons with disabilities and their communities enable us to support our local partners to bring back hope for those affected by Zika and their communities.

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