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“Psychological First Aid” after Hurricane Matthew Timely for World Mental Health Day 2016

Hurricane Matthew’s devastating impact with lost lives, injury, displacement and damage, is a stark reminder of how debilitating natural disasters and other external crises like Zika, non-communicable diseases and the economic downturn are inextricably linked to our mental health.

The mental health and psychosocial response to crisis events, like Hurricane Matthew, involving distress and sudden loss, come into sharp focus for the next week as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) comes together to commemorate World Mental Health Day on October 10 under the theme, “Dignity in Mental Health: Psychological First Aid for All”.

This year’s theme for World Mental Health Day is therefore particularly relevant for the Caribbean as a region that faces recurrent natural hazards, including earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. Psychological first aid is a feasible and appropriate response during crises, but it should be complemented with other essential mental health and psychosocial support.

In this respect, it is crucial to have an adequate mental health system prior to an emergency situation and a decentralized system is the best option for providing the immediate and appropriate response to the needs of all people who are affected.

Furthermore, the capacity of countries and local authorities to organize an adequate mental health response will depend on the strength of their community-based mental health systems, the depth of the integration of mental health into their primary health care, and the existence of adequate policies, plans, and legislation.

As Caribbean countries undergo continual change and move towards the integration of mental health into primary health care and community-based mental health services, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is working with countries in the region to increase access to adequate services and to protect the human rights of people with mental health conditions.

In this context, efforts must continue to enhance the region’s preparedness in the mental health field to respond to emergencies and disasters. Disasters, therefore, provide an ideal opportunity to mobilize interest and resources to strengthen the mental health systems, including updating mental health policies, plans, and legislation for a sustainable system.

Hurricane Matthew is a reminder of the major challenges that these events present for individuals and society at large. In these emergency situations, in addition to saving lives and treating physical injuries, it becomes very important to have a good understanding of the mental health reactions of populations to collective trauma.

When terrible things happen in our communities, we can extend a helping hand to those who are affected. Orientation in the principles of psychological first aid gives responders a framework for how to respond in a natural, supportive, and practical manner. This form of support may be delivered by professionals and non-professionals alike, emphasizing listening without pressing the person to talk, assessing needs and concerns, ensuring that basic physical needs are met, mobilizing social support, and providing essential information.

The 2016 World Mental Health Day is a day to bring attention to mental health conditions in the Caribbean and its major effects on people’s lives. It is also a platform to create awareness of the stigma and isolation that continues to plague people with mental health conditions and their families.

The Mental Health Plan of Action 2015-2020 of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) includes four lines of action that have been approved by the countries in the Americas:
Line of action 1: Leadership and governance:
Develop and implement national policies or plans for mental health and mental health promotion that are aligned with regional and global mental health plans.
Draft and implement national mental health laws consistent with international human rights instruments.
Line of action 2: Community-based mental health services:
Increase outpatient coverage for mental health.
Reduce the role of psychiatric hospitals.
Integrate a mental health component
Line of action 3: Promotion and prevention:
Implement mental health promotion and prevention programs.
Implement suicide prevention programs.
Line of action 4: Information systems, evidence and research:
Strengthen information systems by integrating a basic set of mental health indicators that are systematically compiled and reported annually.

More information about 2016 World Mental Health Day is available on PAHO’s website at: and on The World Federation for Mental Health website at:

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