Mental health

MSF counselors provide psychosocial care for survivors of sexual violence in Acapulco, Mexico.
Mexico 2018 © Christopher Rogel Blanquet/MSF
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Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides mental health and psychosocial support as part of our emergency work around the world. In 2019 MSF teams provided 400,200 individual mental health consultations. This year, mental health services have been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the needs are compounded by the crisis. MSF teams are adapting to meet the challenges and drawing attention to dangerous gaps in care.  

MSF provides emergency medical aid in response to armed conflicts, natural disasters, famines, and epidemics. MSF doctors and nurses are often seen treating physical ailments: bandaging the war-wounded, rehydrating cholera patients, performing emergency Caesarean sections. But for more than 20 years, MSF has also been caring for patients’ mental health.

Depression and anxiety

Depression and anxiety can immobilize people at just the time when they need to take action for themselves and their families. Mental health care is also part of services for HIV/AIDStuberculosis, nutritionsexual violence, and during disease outbreaks and disasters.

MSF’s mental health care aims primarily to reduce people’s symptoms and improve their ability to function. Often this work is done by local counselors specially trained by MSF. MSF psychologists or psychiatrists provide technical support and clinical supervision.

When appropriate, MSF’s counseling services may reinforce or complement mental health care approaches that already exist in the local community.

At the same time, specialized clinicians treat severe mental illness. But severe illness accounts for a minority of the cases that MSF sees.

Needs are high, and MSF continues to expand its mental health programs. Last year, MSF’s mental health teams performed more than 400,200 individual and group counseling sessions worldwide.

Increasing capacity

People seek help for many reasons—the agonizing loss of a child in an earthquake, the trauma of sexual violence, getting caught up in a violent conflict. MSF mental health workers listen to their stories, and help them find ways to cope and move on with their lives.

Treating severely disturbed people remains a challenge for MSF teams, given the complexity of managing psychiatric drugs and medication.

Increasing teams’ capacity to treat these illnesses remains a priority for MSF.

Setting up mental health care programs in emergency situations is not straightforward, especially when violence and trauma are ongoing, and therefore no "cure" is possible.

Sometimes, it is difficult to guarantee continuity of care in unstable and dangerous settings.

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