Mental health and psychosocial support includes help that people get to protect or promote their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.
It helps people deal more effectively with personal challenges, and to treat and prevent mental disorders.
Major psychosocial issues include family problems, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic disorders, substance abuse, sexual abuse, violence and stress-related physical problems.
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Psychosocial support may come within or outside people’s communities. It may be provided by professional specialists or others. It can take many forms, depending on people’s needs and on what services are available.
Grassroots psychosocial support can help in identifying symptoms of mental problems. The symptoms are many but vary. The common ones include fatigue, fear, anxiety, uneasiness, sadness, helplessness, and cognitive impairment like lack of concentration, sleep disturbance and forgetfulness, loss of memory, sexual dysfunction and loss of interest in former pleasurable activities.
Psychosocial support prevents stress and anger-related diseases. When one is stressed, run down, angry and resentful, the body begins to break down causing diseases.
Suppressed emotions interfere with neurotransmitters, causing their imbalances. Imbalanced neurotransmitters cause many diseases ranging from flu to cancer.
In crisis situations like Covid-19, people need therapies or medication or a combination of both provided by psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, specialised nurses and general practitioners.
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Psychosocial treatments involve counselling, motivational enhancement, case management, care co-ordination and relapse prevention. It, therefore, requires identification of needs and the training of adequate personnel. This will be an important step to support vulnerable families and their caregivers.
First and foremost, support is creation of awareness about symptoms of mental disorders. Psychologists and counsellors are like mirrors that make clients aware of what they do not know about themselves.
The society should be aware of the symptoms of mental problems. The awareness will empower them to seek help the way people do for medical attention for symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, coughing and chest pains.
The second step is to help people identify the type of mental disorders they might have developed and the level of their condition through psychological assessment.
The assessment involves use of international standardised tests which, in most cases, can only be carried out by clinical psychologists or counsellors who have been trained. The assessment results determine the way forward for the treatment of mental problems.
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This means that such services should be available at grassroots level. This calls for community-based mental health services. Once medical personnel identify a condition related to mental health, it should be referred to a counsellor.
There should be professionals to offer counselling services by listening to people's anxieties; giving people a shoulder to cry on without judgement or labelling, and instead empathising and accepting without conditions.
During counselling, they can identify cases that require referrals for special services. For example, homelessness or poverty could be referred to organisations that intervene with such provisions, thus networking to provide basic human needs.
More than therapy
Psychosocial support, however, can be much more than ‘therapy’ but includes a variety of activities. Examples are support and self-help groups for women, youth or people with disabilities, structured play activities for children, mind-body approaches such as relaxation and breathing exercises, storytelling, music and handicraft or vocational courses, and spiritual nourishment.
Such activities can help people build self-esteem, realise the universality of their problems, express their pent up feelings in a free atmosphere, develop values, correct irrational thoughts and beliefs, and learn how to cope with their problems.
Meeting needs of vulnerable populations requires a variety of approaches and actions. Therefore, an integrated approach is important. These approaches can help vulnerable populations build self-esteem to confront emerging challenges. Involving the vulnerable in physical activities and other exercises will improve their mental wellbeing.
During a period like this, it can be useful to organise outreach programmes of awareness in various learning institutions and relevant forums, like faith-based programmes and services.
- Dr Okumu is a clinical psychologist