Cometh the hour, cometh the solutions…

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town


Research on humanitarian responses to emergencies faces practical challenges relating to data collection and feasibility. In addition, there are often sensitive ethical implications relating to carrying out research in such conditions.

A case study presented at Forum 2012 by Jun Yan, director of the mental health division of China’s Ministry of Health, and Sun Xueli  of Sichuan University, looked at some of the experiences relating to mental health services after the deadly 7.9 magnitude earthquake near Wenchuan, in the Sichuan province, in May 2008.

The Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008 caused 69,000 deaths (Flickr/Wen Chuan)

More than 69,000 people had died, a further 370,000 were injured, with about 4.8 million people left homeless: in total 40 million people were affected by the disaster.

A guideline for psychological crisis intervention in emergency situations was published by the Chinese ministry of health, five days after the disaster.

Among the responses was a post-disaster mental health aid project aimed at adolescents and children. This was prompted by the fact that many thousands of school children had died, and at least 7,000 school buildings in the province had collapsed.

There were very few counsellors to provide mental health support services to children, said Jun, and teachers were ill-prepared to take on the task.

The challenge was to find quick, effective ways to treat mental problems among the affected children, and to help them get through the traumatic period following the disaster.

The response programme included setting up an education-healthcare mental health platform, based on local educational administrative departments.

A major resource was the West China Hospital of the Sichuan University, which has one of the best mental health centres in China and which formed the core of an expert group providing professional guidance. Support also came from the numerous motivated volunteers.

A pilot study was aimed at collecting evidence through a baseline survey, creating service teams, developing training material and guidelines, equipping facilities, training the trainers, and organising working teams.

The subsequent programme actions included, among others, group therapy for high-risk students, family support and therapy, prevention interventions focusing on single-parent and divorced, training teaching staff to integrate mental health issues into regular teaching, and building school counselling centres.

As an extension of the programme, a mental health outpatient service was set up in villages and towns by training part-time and full-time primary mental health staff.

Lessons learnt included the importance of multi-sector coordination and participation with government leading; the need for a provincial level expert group (consisting of psychiatrists, as well as educational and public health experts) to provide professional guidance; and support from private bodies, both locally and internationally.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

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