July 27, 2010

MSF calls for expanded and improved mental health care for victims of the armed conflict

New York, July 27, 2010—Victims of the on-going conflict in Colombia not only suffer from the direct consequences of violence caused by the conflict but also from social and institutional stigma and neglect, according to a report released today by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In the report, titled “Three Time Victims,” MSF documents how violence, stigma, and neglect impact the mental health of people living in Caquetá Department of southern Colombia, and calls for mental health services to be adapted to the needs of this vulnerable population.

“Our teams witness the appalling reality endured by most of the population in Caquetá,” said Teresa Sancristóval, head of MSF operations in Colombia. “On the one hand, people are exposed to the violence perpetrated by the different armed groups, and on the other hand authorities and society fail to provide them with the attention they deserve. The consequences of this situation for mental health include severe psychological suffering that should be addressed by authorities.”

Between March 2005 and September 2009, MSF saw 5,064 patients in its mental health project in Caquetá. Of these patients, 49.2 percent had been directly exposed to the conflict, caught in the fighting between armed groups, as well as violent incidents involving threats, injuries, forced recruitment, displacement, movement restrictions, or killings of family members.

The victims of the conflict not only endure the consequences of direct violence, but also face social stigma. “In Colombia, the stigma surrounding those affected by the conflict forces them to keep silent about their condition and suffering, which prevents their social integration and recognition and sense of belonging,” said María Cristóbal, MSF mental health officer in Colombia. This prevents people’s access to employment, housing, education, and health.

In addition to direct violence and social stigma, victims are often excluded from receiving state support through social services. This institutional neglect can be clearly seen through the scant recognition of the forced displacement phenomenon in Colombia.

“The Colombian government should live up to its responsibility in terms of tending to the needs of these people,” said Sancristóval. “Based on our experience in Caquetá, we can say that offering mental health care with limited resources in conflict contexts is possible and that this care can effectively improve patients’ conditions.”

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières has been working in Colombia since 1985, offering medical and psychological care, as well as guidance and support to thousands of people affected by the conflict. Since 1999, MSF has worked in Caquetá Department; since 2005, the organization has been carrying out specific mental health activities there.

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