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Post-disaster mental health support for kids is essential

Such support is key to improving the well-being of children affected by humanitarian emergencies

April 8, 2021 6:02:51 pm
Children are the worst affected — witnessing the destruction caused by the floods has been very distressing and traumatic. Failure to address mental health and psychosocial issues post disasters, stalls a child’s development.

Written By Blesson Samuel

The recent flash flood in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district had a devastating impact on people’s life and livelihood. Sixty-eight lives have been lost and over 136 people are still missing. The state government has initiated a process of declaring missing people by issuing a notification as “presumed dead”. For Uttarakhand’s local population, whose homes and villages have been swept away by the raging floodwaters, life has been irrevocably altered. Trapped in their homes without food and water, they are left without a livelihood. They are now forced to bear the full and enduring impact of the glacial outburst.

Children are the worst affected — witnessing the destruction caused by the floods has been very distressing and traumatic. Failure to address mental health and psychosocial issues post disasters, stalls a child’s development. Children with mental health conditions suffer stigma, discrimination — even human rights violations. Disasters also put parents and caregivers under mental and psychosocial duress, which can prevent them from providing the protection, stability and nurturing care their children need during and after an emergency. Psychosocial care for children should become a part of the minimum standards of humanitarian assistance delivered by government and civil society to crises-affected populations. Initiatives on psychosocial interventions should be integrated in every disaster response.

After the 2018 Kerala Floods, 10-year-old Anusha was not as cheerful as she used to be. The floods that shook her small house near Alleppey, Kerala had affected her deeply. She became silent. Her fathers’ dependency on alcohol and the friction between her parents compounded her mental stress. The timely psychosocial counselling provided at her school by an NGO helped her to come out from her post-traumatic stress disorder. Anusha is now able to concentrate on her education and is back on the road to normalcy.

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All disasters are accompanied by human suffering. Disaster survivors suffer in their own way, often silently. Immediately after a disaster, life-saving aid flows in. While the government, volunteers and humanitarian agencies are adept at dealing with the physical needs, on most occasions they miss the invisible needs of disaster survivors, such as mental health and psychosocial support, especially for children.

Disasters like flash floods often occur in far-flung and low-resource areas. In Uttarakhand, the affected families are still trying to cope with the aftermath. The state government must guarantee last mile connectivity to ensure no one is left behind — especially those in needs for psychosocial support. While it is the primary role of the state, the responsibility should be shared with local government, the private sector and other stakeholders, including civil society to provide the much-needed mental health services. Governments should provide an enabling environment for development of capacities for the provision of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) as an integral part of recovery initiatives in disaster-affected areas. In order to support programmes that promote and implement action to enhance psychosocial recovery, it is critical to allocate requisite funds to provide psychosocial support and mental health services for all people, including children.

The National Mental Health Programme (NMHP) is the Government of India’s sole centrally-sponsored scheme for mental health. The programme, however, remains heavily underfunded, and the Union budget allocation has been reducing every year. Sustainable finance mechanisms are critical for strengthening psychosocial support for disaster survivors. The proposed allocation for NHMP in FY 21 — Rs 40 crore — is too small an amount to handle mental health impact and fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adequate budgetary provisions and finance mechanisms will definitely improve access to psychosocial care services and align us with the Sendai framework and Prime Minister’s 10-point agenda for disaster risk reduction.

Many times, children’s voices go unheard. They are unable to take forward their concerns to the government and policy makers. Access to psychosocial care during humanitarian emergencies is paramount and we cannot afford to compromise on this requirement, lest there be more Anushas affected in the fallout of any disaster.

Blesson Samuel is head, Emergency Relief and External Engagement, World Vision India

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