As Syria’s civil war enters its fifth year today, the visible signs of human suffering leave little doubt the conflict has become the largest humanitarian crisis in generations. An estimated 200,000 are dead, about half of Syria’s 21 million people have been forced from their homes and the largest refugee population in recent history—over 3.9 million—have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
Today, International Medical Corps, which has been working to help the Syrian people since the start of the crisis, released a report containing evidence of a less visible yet disturbing tragedy emerging from the conflict: as mental health and psychosocial needs continue to grow among the millions of Syrians exposed to the chaos of war and displacement, so too does the urgent need for skilled staff and accessible mental health services.
The prevalence of emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression can double in a humanitarian crisis, and people with pre-existing mental health problems are especially vulnerable. The report found that among Syrians who utilized mental health services at International Medical Corps’ facilities across the region, 54 percent suffered from emotional disorders and 11 percent had psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. More than a quarter of the children receiving mental health services had developmental disorders.
The report reveals weak national mental health services overburdened by the demands placed on them by the Syria crisis. Health facilities which previously provided integrated mental health services in Syria have themselves become casualties of war, with most either destroyed, damaged or not functioning. The shortage of trained mental health care providers is viewed as critical, both in Syria and in the neighboring countries where refugees now reside. Strengthening and expanding these services is crucial for Syria’s longer term recovery because the need for treatment will last for years after the war ends.
“We see horrific images from Syria broadcast almost every evening on the nightly news, but these images only tell part of the story,” said Rabih Torbay, International Medical Corps’ Senior Vice President of International Operations. “What we cannot see is the impact this bloody war is having on the mental health of an entire nation. It has created an invisible mental health crisis, the depths of which will take the entire international community to address.”
Noted Inka Weissbecker, International Medical Corps Mental Health and Psychosocial Advisor and co-author of the report: “The impact of unaddressed mental health issues can have far reaching consequences for entire families and communities. Those with mental illness often struggle to complete the daily tasks needed to meet basic needs, raise children or have supportive relationships with others. This is more pronounced during humanitarian crises and even more so in the midst of armed conflict. This is why International Medical Corps is providing not only basic and emergency health care but also mental health services and psychosocial support to the children, women and men affected by the crisis in Syria.”
To support the international community in meeting the mental health needs of Syrians inside Syria and refugees, International Medical Corps calls for:
- Scaling up accessible, sustainable and comprehensive mental health services, including strengthening and preparing mental health care systems in Syria and surrounding countries;
- Increasing mental health training for doctors, nurses and other general health care providers as well as augmenting the training psychologists and social workers, which will help increase the cadre of trained mental health human resources now and in the future; and
- Involving affected Syrians in community outreach and in learning basic psychosocial support skills, which can strengthen community support and help establish links to formal mental health care services.