Over the past 18 months, we have faced significant uncertainty as Covid-19 unleashed itself on communities at home and the world over. I remember conversations early in the pandemic—will our healthcare system cope? Will we be able to continue to make ends meet? When will we see our friends and family again? Will supply chains hold up?

We saw supermarket fights over toilet paper and hoarding of dry goods, but we also saw communities come together and support each other. I remember ANZAC Day where people stood at their letterboxes at the crack of dawn, tuning into the radios and paying their respects to those who served and those who gave their lives. We upskilled in home baking, tried to get/stay fit with Zoom fitness classes and learned long-lost skills such as long division, as the dining table became a classroom.

But as the lockdown wore on, much as it is now, life became more difficult. For many, stress, frustration or a sense of feeling “flat” crept in. For some, the experience was more serious and damaging for themselves or their close ones.

As a humanitarian worker, I’ve responded to people’s needs following earthquakes, flooding, tsunami and horrific acts of genocide. There are some striking similarities between these crises and Covid-19 lockdowns from a mental health perspective.


Untitled-design-(1).jpgTearfund's International Programmes Director Carl Adams in Cox's Bazar.


Following a crisis, people often unite around their shared experience—families and communities support each other, there is a heightened awareness, and to some extent, adrenaline kicks in. It always amazes me to see how people get on with things following a crisis. They adapt, adjust and find a “new normal” even where everything around them is in shambles.

Fast-forward a few months, those same people are often exhausted, the trauma of loss hits, the reality of struggle sets in and there is no end in sight. This is the side of crises that TV news doesn’t show. People have given their all in a struggle to survive a crisis, but the road to recovery is long.

What we don’t see is the trauma that people living in a refugee camp have experienced before they arrived there. I have worked with Rohingya refugees in Myanmar who fled horrific acts of genocide– almost all had been exposed to gunfire, burning of their homes and dead bodies. More than half of the population surveyed have mental health symptoms indicative of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and 84% had symptoms of emotional distress, such as anxiety and depression. These numbers are staggering. By comparison, these PTSD rates are around three times higher than those recorded among war veterans.


Untitled-design-(2).jpgPeople have given their all in a struggle to survive a crisis, but the road to recovery is long.

I have seen first-hand the need for mental health support as a critical part of crisis response. It can take a range of forms:
  • Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) are places where kids can gather and play while their parents get some respite and can focus on their immediate needs such as food, shelter and safety.
  • Support groups and group counselling create the space for survivors to support one another and process their trauma with the support of a trained professional.
  • Houses of worship are at the centre of many communities and are places where people find peace, guidance and sustenance.
  • Individual counselling and referral to additional support services.

Overarching these is something many of us have probably done without even knowing it—we call it Psychological First Aid. It’s based on the understanding that crisis survivors often face a broad range of early reactions such as physical, psychological, spiritual and behavioural changes that may cause enough distress that it interferes with their adaptive coping.

Psychological First Aid focuses on “seeing the person”, not only their need for assistance and taking actions that will meet them where they’re at. It might involve engaging people compassionately, providing comfort, helping to calm or stabilising them, providing practical assistance, connecting people with social supports like family, friends or community, sharing information about how to cope or linking with services that can support them further.


Untitled-design-(3).jpgCox's Bazar, in Bangladesh. The world's largest refugee camp.

I will never be able to relate to the traumatic experiences that survivors of crises go through. However, in some small way, Covid-19 has given us all a small taste of the mental health experiences of a “long, hard slog” to get through and rebuild lives after a life-changing event.

As we go through challenging times, I hope that we continue to remember those who daily live with uncertainty, and our hearts see the people behind the numbers. Let us commit to the community spirit that brought out the best of us on ANZAC Day 2020, and pay a little more attention to the invisible struggles people in our local and global communities face.

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