Boko Haram and the mental health issues of the displaced


A report on mental health services in emergency settings published by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that humanitarian emergencies double the chances that people will be affected by mental disorders. Thanks to external financial support, COOPI has been able to launch a new project for the prevention and treatment of these disorders in South East Niger, where communities fleeing the violence of Boko Haram are the project’s beneficiaries.

From the 1st of October 2017, the COOPI network has promised to reach 14,876 individuals who have problems with the long-term consequences of physical and sexual abuse inflicted by Boko Haram’s military. The strategy intends to increase access to mental health and support services for female victims of abuse, training local medical staff to identify and treat needy individuals, and to direct them to an experienced team of psychologists.

Research conducted by COOPI psychologists in the Diffa region indicates that half of those affected by mental health problems have developed them as a direct consequence of the ongoing conflict. Among these, 32% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 25% from depression and 7% from psychosis – percentages which are similar to those found in other conflicts. Adama Consimbo, COOPI psychosocial counselor in Niger, explains that


“these are extremely debilitating conditions, which can affect people and entire communities in the long run if nothing is done to help them get back on their feet and take over control of their futures.”


Despite the emergency, Niger remains one of the countries with the lowest number of mental health professionals in the world: only four psychiatrists for a population of over 20 million people. To constrain this gap, COOPI’s strategy will focus on making the best possible use of existing human resources, training them to respond to these types of crises, in order to be prepared for the future, making them less dependent on external aid. COOPI aims to educate existing medical staff, such as doctors, nurses and midwives, to provide mental health services and psychosocial support to those who need it most. These health professionals will be supported and supervised by an experienced team of psychologists, who will take care of the most sensitive cases. Marzia Vigliaroni (COOPI Head of Mission in Niger) and Giovanni Sala (project leader) explain:


“This is a public health strategy that has proven itself repeatedly in different emergency settings; our focus will be on providing high quality training, ensuring close monitoring of the medical staff so that the population receives excellent care.”


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                                                                          Fotografie nell’articolo: © Abdoulaye Barry


In addition to working with the medical staff, COOPI will build psychosocial support centers for children and adolescents to provide an appropriate environment for the protection and growth of the younger members of the community. This is a place where children can feel safe and forget their surroundings, and are able to develop their cognitive and emotional skills through various activities including games, sports, acting and painting.

Also, a psychologist will be active in these centers to immediately identify children with specific difficulties and ensure that they receive the necessary attention to avoid the emergence of more serious mental health problems in the future.

Safety in the Lake Chad Basin proved to be precarious from the start of the Boko Haram terrorist activity in 2009, characterized by brutal attacks on villages and sporadic suicide attacks, which forced large numbers of people to flee from their homes and abandon everything. The Diffa region in Niger, on the border with Nigeria, counts nowadays about 250 thousand people who are directly affected by the crisis. Most of them are witnesses of the atrocious acts committed by the Boko Haram militias, including brutal murders and abductions of family members and friends.

COOPI has been working in Diffa since 2013 and has developed a regional strategy to respond to the Lake Chad Basin crisis through an integrated approach that includes education, protection, food security and mental health programs. These interventions make it possible to respond promptly to the urgent needs of the populations affected by the conflict.

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