Nepal Earthquakes 2015: Disaster & Mental Health


Nepal faces the risk of different forms of natural disasters like avalanches, floods, earthquakes, landslides, etc. which can potentially create acute short-term impact on the mental health on individual, family, and community levels which can develop into long-term psychosocial and mental health problems if they are not supported and treated on time[1]. The healthcare systems of Nepal government should include mental health and psychosocial support from the primary level in order to facilitate easier access to the services. Some organizations have tried to integrate MHPSS services in primary health care facilities in few districts as a pilot program [2]. The government needs to take interest in such innovative attempts and replicate the program in a larger scale by considering their feasibility and efficacy.

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A damaged house in Dhunchhe, Rasuwa waits for the rebuilding.

Two years after the earthquakes, the adverse impact on physical infrastructure and many aspects of lives is still present in the highly affected districts of Nepal. Majority of the people are still waiting for the government assistance to rebuild their homes. Many people are also in need of mental health and psychosocial services to overcome the adverse effects of the disaster although the level of disorders is low but the distress level among the population is quite high due to different reasons according to the various studies.

Immediately after the earthquakes, there were many national and international organisations providing disaster relief including MHPSS services on the ground which ranged from psychological first aid, community-based psychosocial support programs (psychosocial counseling, support groups, etc), to psychiatric treatment at district headquarter level. The activities covered almost all the levels as illustrated in IASC intervention pyramid [3].

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The Red Cross team interacting with female community health volunteers (FCHVs) in Sindhupalchowk about the impact on mental health and psychosocial wellbeing after earthquakes.

As Red Cross staff, I led the team in Sindhupalchowk few weeks after the earthquakes for providing psychological first aid (PFA) service with team members who had also been trained in physical first aid, it was important to be able to provide support both physically and psychologically. Our work involved providing non-intrusive emotional support, coverage of basic needs through coordination with other units, protection from further harm, reestablishing family links and reinforcing local resilience and social support [4].

Two weeks after the PFA intervention in 5 most affected districts, I visited Gorkha and Dhading, for quick review meeting with field teams and visited some sites to interact locally and observe the impact of the service.  field visit report  [5].

Dr. Dhana Ratna Shakya, Additional Professor, Department of Psychiatry, BPK Institute of Health Sciences (BPKIHS) in Dharan, who conducted a survey among 500 victims of the earthquake in Bhaktapur, reflects, “Through this disaster experience, what I have learned so far is that disasters, as awful as they are, can turn out to be an opportunity for mental health professionals to improve mental health literacy in our communities and sometimes across a whole country.”  Indeed, there has been a lot of investment into reinforcing MHPSS services and increasing mental health literacy and awareness among the people [6].

In addition to providing relief and psychosocial support directly, there were also many attempts on capacity building of stakeholders at local levels who could intervene in absence of trained mental health professionals like psychosocial counselors. For example: Many training programs focused on training health workers to include MHPSS component in their regular services to support people visiting the health posts, teachers’ training to provide emotional and psychosocial support to students at school level, and so on. However, there is a question on the effectiveness of short-term (few days) trainings considering they already have enough workload and there is little incentive and supervision to monitor the changes and how they are making use of the knowledge obtained from the trainings.

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The health worker providing medicine in district health post.

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Trained teacher encouraging students to practice a relaxation exercise at the beginning of his class.

Nevertheless, there have been some reports on the potential misuse of such funding or lack of remarkable results from the MHPSS programs despite heavy expenditure. The critical post by BBC highlighted the immense use of funding for the psychosocial services in the affected districts, mainly Sindhupalchowk and questioned the effectiveness of such programmes which focused on the training of the people [7]. It highlights the need for proper assessment of the psychosocial needs of the people and then after, solid monitoring and evaluation mechanisms in place for the services delivered to show the effectiveness of MHPSS programmes. One of the senior psychiatrists is quoted as saying that after one year of disaster, the psychosocial problems of the people are likely to end which is not realistic given the slow pace and social & political circumstances of the recovery.

We have noticed that disasters tend to aggravate vulnerabilities of rural areas, socially disadvantaged groups, ethnic minorities[8], people living with disabilities, older people, and of women (single women or women who husbands have migrated abroad for work)[9]. In fact, women, constituted a disproportionately high percentage of disaster fatalities. Those who survived, experience risks to personal security, inadequate sanitary/hygiene facilities, exclusion from decision making, and problems in receiving assistance for lack of human resources, information and personal documents [10]. They are also more likely than men to be psychologically affected. Research by Kohrt et al. (2009 &  2012) in rural Nepal has shown gender (female) to be a risk factor for the mental health problems [11a, 11b].

hdr Palsang Lama, Community Psychosocial Worker (ITDS, Nuwakot) is seen here providing home-based counseling session on nutrition to a pregnant woman.

In larger number of cases, persons with disabilities face multiple layers of exclusion and discrimination, such as ethnic woman with disability (visually impaired) who is overwhelmed by hierarchies of gender, caste, and disability, severely limiting her educational, economic, and social opportunities who thus becomes more vulnerable to psychological distress. The woman below from one of the IDP camps is visually impaired who lacked citizenship and disability card, thanks to the psychosocial workers from LACCOS who accompanied her to get them. Now, despite having them, she still lacks opportunities for education and employment.

hdrThe visually impaired woman sharing her difficulties of living as a person with disability in IDP camp.

The study on disaster and disability by Lord et al. (2016) has confirmed prior findings that intellectually disabled persons and people with mental health problems are perhaps the most marginalized and vulnerable group in Nepal [12]. The report consists of three thematic sections which consider the mental health and intellectual disability issues. It discusses about intellectual disabilities & caregivers, underreporting of mental disabilities and the post-earthquake mental health gap. There is clearly a lack of disable-friendly MHPSS programs.

The study done by Tewa and Nagarik Awaz (2016) tried to explore the impacts on the lives of women and men of Bhaktapur [13]. The disaster has forced them to break many cultural norms and experience cultural festivals as moments of sadness, and annoyance instead of the reason for joy, and social cohesiveness. On the positive side, the post-disaster conditions allowed for an increase in social harmony, and solidarity as everybody was suffering from the similar consequences. Females worried about forced separation from a joint family into nuclear families, changes in their roles and life patterns in terms of their daily activities, deprivation of cultural activities such as celebrations of festivals and social gatherings with relatives, psychological distress and need to compromise for a lower standard of life. The males worried that their daily routine has changed as they were compelled to work in the kitchen and care for the babies because women had to spend more time fetching drinking water from distant sources. The gender roles were clearly challenged and men also had to participate in the tasks from which they would otherwise refrain from in normal times.  Males also admitted the increased intake of alcohol with the misconception that it might help them reduce their levels of stress.

The study done by TPO and IMC in three most affected districts: Gorkha, Sindhupalchowk and Kathmandu showed depression among 34.2%, anxiety among 33.8%, PTSD among 5.2%, alcohol use problems among 20.4% and prevalence of suicidal ideation of 11%. It reveals there were high levels of distress but low levels of disorders and functional impairment after four months of the disaster. It also showed that support for mental health problems was provided mainly by traditional healers, religious leaders and staffs mobilized by national and international organizations [14]. The alcohol use problem was prevalent as a negative coping as mentioned in the study above conducted in Bhaktapur. It would be interesting to revisit them and see how they are faring after twenty-four months of the earthquakes.

One of the major learnings of this disaster for Nepal have been to include MHPSS aspect into disaster preparedness in the future.  The agencies coordinating disaster relief need to integrate MHPSS services while providing support for the basic needs as psychosocial support needs are equally important as food, drinking water, shelter, and emergency medical aid. Like Dr. Dhana said above, disaster has also brought some opportunities in MHPSS field, awareness has increased among people regarding mental health issues and resources have also been developed in context of disaster and other situations. The mobile app with helpful information has been developed by TPO Nepal [15].

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Mobile App Screenshot. Also available in web version: manosamajik.com.np

Post Disaster Recovery Framework 2016-2020 of Government of Nepal published by National Reconstruction Authority has envisioned the provision of psychosocial services in education and health sectors under Strategic Recovery objective three: Restore and improve access to services, and improve environmental resilience (p. 8) [16]. Ministry of Health has recently endorsed the revised National Mental Health Policy of 1997, it will go into implementation once it is approved by the cabinet of Nepal government [17].  With that in effect, Nepali people will have improved access to MHPSS services from formal sector in normal times as well as disaster.

References:

  1. Government of Nepal, Ministry of Home Affairs. Nepal Disaster Report 2015

http://www.drrportal.gov.np/uploads/document/329.pdf

  1. Integrating MHPSS services in primary health care facilities in post-earthquake Nepal. Accessed on 24.04.2017, http://www.mhinnovation.net/innovations/integrating-mhpss-services-primary-health-care-facilities-post-earthquake-nepal
  2. Sherchan S, Samuel R, Marahatta K, Anwar N, Van Ommeren MH, Ofrin R. Post-disaster mental health and psychosocial support: experience from the 2015 Nepal earthquake. WHO South-East Asia J Public Health. 2017; 6(1):22–29. http://www.searo.who.int/publications/journals/seajph/issues/seajphv6n1p22.pdf

4. ICRC (2015). Nepal earthquake: Helping communities face their fears https://www.icrc.org/en/document/nepal-earthquake-communities-face-fears

5. Maharjan, S. M. (2015). Field Mission Report: Psychological first Aid Response for earthquake-affected communities.

  1. Shakya, D. R. (2016). The Nepal earthquake: use of a disaster to improve mental health literacy. BJPsych International, 3 (1), 8-9.

7. BBC Nepali Service (2017). ‘एकै जिल्लामा मनोपरामर्शका नाममा डेढ अर्ब’

http://www.bbc.com/nepali/news-38610412

  1. Nepalitimes (2015). Tamang Epiccentre. 10-16 July 2015#766, http://nepalitimes.com/article/nation/April-25-earthquake-Tamang-epicentre,2407
  2. Neumayer, E., & Plumper, T. (2007). The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002. Annals of the Association of American Geographers , 551-566.
  3. Halvorson, J. P. (2007). The 2005 Kashmir Earthquake: A Perspective on Women’s Experiences. Mountain Research and Development, 296-301.

11a. Kohrt, B. A., & Worthman, C. M. (2009). Gender and anxiety in Nepal: the role of social support, stressful life events, and structural violence. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics15(3), 237-248. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1755-5949.2009.00096.x/pdf

11b. Kohrt, B. A., Hruschka, D. J., Worthman, C. M., Kunz, R. D., Baldwin, J. L., Upadhaya, N., … & Jordans, M. J. (2012). Political violence and mental health in Nepal: prospective study. The British Journal of Psychiatry201(4), 268-275. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3461445/

  1. Lord, A., Sijapati, B., Baniya, J., Chand, O., & Ghale, T. (2016). Disaster, Disability, & Difference: A Study of the Challenges Faced by Persons with Disabilities in Post-Earthquake Nepal. Published by Social Science Baha and the United Nations DevelopmentProgramme in Nepal: Kathmandu.
  2. Tewa & Nagarik Aawaz. (2016). A Gendered Look into Bhaktapur’s Recovery and Rebuilding: An Applied Research. Kathmandu, Nepal.
  3. Kane, J. C., Luitel, N. P., Jordans, M. J. D., Kohrt, B. A., Weissbecker, I., & Tol, W. A. (2017). Mental health and psychosocial problems in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquakes: findings from a representative cluster sample survey.Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 1-10.
  4. TPO Nepal (2016). Andriod App, Manosamajik. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.suswasthya.manosamajik.manosamajiksuswastha

16. Nepal Earthquake 2015: Post Disaster Recovery Framework – 2016-2020 http://reliefweb.int/report/nepal/nepal-earthquake-2015-post-disaster-recovery-framework-2016-2020

17. Himalyan Times (2017). Mental health policy coming to effect soon. https://thehimalayantimes.com/nepal/mental-health-policy-coming-effect-soon/

Note: This is a follow up post for the ones I have published earlier, first one three months later and the other one on the occasion of first anniversary. I look forward to receiving your comments and feedback.

And some music from Rohit Shakya with beautiful backdrop of Boudhanath:

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#NepalQuake After a Week


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A week ago on April 25, 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal causing the large scale damage and casualties. The most affected districts are Dhading, Gorkha, Rasuwa, Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Nuwakot, Dolakha, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and Ramechhap. It is the biggest earthquake in Nepal since 1934 (1990 BS) 80 years ago. Over 6,200 people are known to have died as a result, and many others are injured, homeless and displaced. There is a humanitarian crisis and many people are still awaiting for relief. Aftershocks are still being felt, latest this afternoon, so, people are still fearful and worried about their safety. Many people have not only lost their lives, homes and safety. They have been also mentally affected and the consequences will unfold in the days to come, immediately or soon after.  People are resilient by nature and not everyone who experienced a disaster will develop mental health or psychological problems. However, MHPSS support can play crucial role in promoting psychological well-being and preventing adverse psychological impact/results. Psychological first aid along with relief support for basic needs (tarpaulins, blankets, food and utensils) can prevent the psychological damage of Nepali people.

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