Ukraine: supporting nongovernmental organizations in addressing mental health needs in emergencies


In order to support nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in their response to emergencies around the world, WHO in partnership with the International Medical Corps organized a capacity building initiative in Kyiv, Ukraine on 16–23 July 2019. The event, aimed at humanitarian professionals from across the world, focused on ensuring mental health services at the primary health care level in humanitarian settings.

“WHO estimates that every 5th person living in a conflict-affected area acquires at least one mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety or psychosis,” says Dr Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative and Head of the WHO Country Office in Ukraine. “Therefore, investing in mental health and psychosocial support during emergencies should sustain and increase in order to address people’s needs and bring important changes in health systems. Mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian settings is not only about helping people in need – it is also about thinking of future generations.”

International guidelines for integrating mental health and psychosocial support

“A key priority in any emergency response is an integration of mental health and psychosocial support in line with international guidelines,” says Ashley Leichner, Senior Global Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Officer for the International Medical Corps. “Integrated mental health and psychosocial support in emergency activities will reach more people, are more sustainable, and tend to carry less stigma,” she adds.

The week-long training in Kyiv equipped participants with practical and applied knowledge of available international guidelines, to enable them to train general humanitarian health workers. It included the:

  • Mental Health Gap Action Programme Humanitarian Intervention Guide (mhGAP HIG), a simple, practical tool that aims to support general health facilities, in areas affected by humanitarian emergencies, in assessing and managing acute stress, grief, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, epilepsy, intellectual disability, harmful substance use and risk of suicide.
  • Mental Health Gap Action Programme Humanitarian Intervention Guide (mhGAP HIG) operational manual, designed to provide practical, step-by-step guidance to district health managers and others responsible for integrating mental and physical health services.
  • International Medical Corps toolkit for the Integration of Mental Health into General Healthcare in Humanitarian Settings, an interactive guide to plan, design and implement more effective and sustainable mental health programs.

Simulation exercise to apply acquired knowledge

Through simulation exercises, participants practiced jointly assembling an operations team, following the aftermath of a major earthquake, where they worked together to conduct a situation analysis of general mental health and psychosocial support services available in the region. Afterwards, a work plan was developed for training and supervision, as well as for monitoring and evaluation. During the exercises, participants also practiced advocating for mental health issues and communicating the benefits of implementing the mhGAP Humanitarian Intervention Guide to actors representing donors, community leaders and health authorities.

During the implementation phase which will follow the training, WHO and the International Medical Corps will provide the NGOs with technical support through field visits and remote supervision.

Implementing the WHO Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) in Ukraine

“Experiencing an emergency crisis can significantly impact a person’s social and emotional well-being. The need for mental health services in Ukraine is reported as high in all sectors, and for all age groups,” says Osnat Lubrani, UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine. “Mental health and psychosocial support are therefore relevant across the humanitarian development nexus, given the need to respond to urgent immediate needs while concurrently building back sustainable, community-based, and human rights-oriented mental health and psychosocial support services,” he stresses.

As a part of the Humanitarian Response in Ukraine, WHO supports the Government in implementing the mhGAP with a focus on eastern Ukraine. In 2017, at the request of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine, WHO supported the launch of capacity-building activities for the mhGAP Humanitarian Intervention Guide in eastern Ukraine. In 2019, it expanded the programme and trained primary health care workers on Version 2.0 of the mhGAP Intervention Guide in the Donetsk region. “We see the potential of the mhGAP programme scaling up at the national level,” concludes WHO Representative in Ukraine Dr Jarno Habicht.