Mental Health and COVID-19

by Rebekah Sears

In Canada and around the world, the COVID-19 crisis has brought a lot of key issues to the surface, illustrating many significant gaps in care and access to essential services – both within and beyond the healthcare sector. These issues challenge the way we think about society, justice, equity, human dignity, and how we care for one another. One thing is clear: these gaps need to be addressed now, but also into the future. There is no going back.

One such issue that I connect with on a deep and personal level is mental health.

Everyone in Canada is talking about the impacts of this crisis on mental health – governments, workplaces, news outlets, social media, families – because most if not all of us are impacted in some way. Articles are showing up on countless news sites with tips such as limiting news intake, exercising, getting fresh air, rationing worry time, connecting with friends and family, and calling for help if needed.

MCC, mental health and supporting the most vulnerable

For MCC, like most international organizations, COVID-19 is impacting staff and partners in the 50+ countries where MCC works, including Canada and the U.S., and the thousands of project participants. Around the world MCC’s partners are working in areas of uncertainty, hunger, conflict, and communities already experiencing trauma, including addressing urgent mental health needs, through building resilience, psycho-social support, and facilitating reconciliation and justice processes to address root causes of violence.

Participants in a conflict transformation and trauma resiliency workshop near Beirut, Lebanon, in January 2017. This was a follow-up workshop to a 2016 MCC-funded STAR training ( Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resiliency) for Syrian community church leaders and front-line responders and Lebanese MCC partner staff working with refugees. (MCC Photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

MCC supports widescale programming, including through certified STAR training (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience), in areas such as the Middle East, Latin America among others.

MCC also supports locally designed and implemented programs in mental health support. These local partners have been working to address mental health needs long before COVID-19 and will continue long after. MCC strives to work through local partners and connections, knowing that local organizations are often the first responders when crisis occurs. They know the communities in which they work, and the complex contexts much better than organizations coming from outside.

Case studies from the ground up: From Gaza to Central America

In Gaza, MCC’s partners and the communities they support have been living under an Israeli enforced military blockade and siege for 13 years. There is constant surveillance, threat of bombing campaigns, the inability to leave, skyrocketing unemployment, and chronically under-resourced essential services like water, electricity, and healthcare, as many resources are blocked from coming in. With all these factors it is no surprise that mental health challenges are widespread in Gaza, from children right up to the adult population. With the reality of COVID-19, which has already entered Gaza, all of these concerns are greatly exacerbated.

At the graduation of the first group of trained therapist for “Healthy Families” in September 2019 (left to right): Rifqa Younes Hamalawy, Najd Development Forum’s Director; Khalid Elmassri, NDF volunteer, translator and mobile phone app developer; Paul Parker, Peace Program co-Coordinator for MCC Palestine; Khalid Abu Sharekh, NDF’s General Director; Mohammed Abu Yousef, Professor of Psychology and trainer. (photo courtesy of NDF)

MCC’s local partners in Gaza are responding. Last year MCC Ottawa’s blog published a story, Gaza’s Ongoing Mental Health Crisis, featuring MCC’s partner Al Najd [“the assistance”] Development Forum (NDF) and their “Healthy Families” project. This is an innovative project that brings together professional therapists and technology, specifically in an app that provides resources and support from trained psychologists and social workers based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Today, Al Najd is working hard to continue this project, especially considering the additional stressors of COVID-19 on the overall physical mental health of communities in Gaza. Increasing online support through apps and phone calls, like the Healthy Families program is critical.

Across the world in Central America and Mexico, MCC’s partners and the communities they support are facing incredible challenges connected to forced migration. Families and communities are making incredibly difficult decisions. Some decide to leave their home while others are forced from homes due to many factors, including climate change, the pervasiveness of multinational extractive companies, and rising urban violence and gang recruitment. These complex and challenging circumstances take a significant toll on the mental health of individuals and communities. The rise of COVID-19 has exacerbated the crisis, with additional challenges, including border closures, lockdowns, and limits on transport. Migrants are trapped along the way, turning to shelters, which are filling up fast, making it next to impossible to practice physical distancing.

Returned migrants and now students (names omitted for security reasons) pose with their instructor Ever Castro (left) at CASM-supported Loyola Institute Vocational School, El Progresso. In addition to psychological support, in normal times (outside Covid-19) CASM offers vocational training to returned migrants (MCC photo/Jill Steinmetz, 2018)

MCC partners in Central America and Mexico, like in Gaza, have long been responding to mental health concerns of those at the margins, and continue throughout this crisis. MCC partner Comisión de Acción Social Menonita (CASM) in San Pedro Sula, Honduras has long supported the mental health and psychological needs, as well as vocational training of returned migrants (returned by force or by choice). CASM addresses the trauma leading to the decision to leave, and the trauma in coming back. In this time of pandemic, the trained psychologists continue to check in with returned migrants over virtual connecting platforms like Zoom or WhatsApp. Other partners in the region have also amped up their mental health programming.

Mental Health, the Canadian Government’s response to the most vulnerable and how to get involved

The Canadian government, particularly under the leadership of International Development Minister Karina Gould, has been quick to respond to the global COVID-19 crisis, prioritizing the most vulnerable, with a commitment to $159.5 million made in early April naming the UNHCR, WHO, UNRWA and other United Nations agencies as recipients. In early May, Canada also joined the Coronavirus Global Response. In two virtual town halls on March 31 and May 12 2020 and in a recent op-ed Minister Gould also spoke to the many underlying issues that need to be addressed internationally, in addition to COVID-19.

We are grateful for the Canadian government’s global response so far, but we also call on the government to prioritize internationally-based local organizations and first responders  – like Al Najd in Gaza and CASM in Honduras – in responding to the urgent needs in ways that are contextually appropriate,  especially for displaced peoples.  For Al Najd and CASM, as well as many other MCC partners around the world, this includes addressing mental health, among many other needs. In April, MCC Canada sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister Gould and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, noting our appreciation and calling for just that: support for local organizations as they respond to needs they identify as urgent.   

What can you do?

You can send your own letter via MCC’s action tool, calling the government and your Member of Parliament to support local organizations as they respond to COVID-19 and support the most vulnerable. Our tool doesn’t explicitly mention mental health concerns, but you can also add such action into the text.

And you can also make sure you take care of yourself and each other. In times like these most of us are at a minimum dealing with increased stress if not serious mental health challenges. There are a lot of resources and support systems out there. You are not alone.

Resources from key Canadian mental health institutes

Resources for the helping professions and humanitarians

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC ‘s Ottawa Office

2 Thoughts

  1. In times like this many people open their hearts and wallets to help but it is often only on a local or national level. This is good reminder that others need our help as much and probably more. I found the plight of returned migrants very sad…not a group that gets much attention.

    1. Thanks Marie! Good to hear from you – we are inspired by our partners who have been continuing this essential work around the world

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