Complex humanitarian emergencies: mental health and psychosocial response

Dr Peter Hughes

90 minutes


May 2021

CPD learning module

CPD domain:
Clinical, Professional

Complex humanitarian emergencies.jpg

The world faces an unprecedented number of humanitarian emergencies. There were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people, including 26 million refugees, at the end of 2019: the highest numbers ever (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], 2020). Natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis are occurring alongside increasing incidences of flooding, hurricanes and cyclones, which seems likely to be in some way linked to climate change. In 2017, there were 30 reported crises requiring global humanitarian assistance – double the number of the previous decade (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA], 2019).

Emergencies stretch services that may already be weak, but also bring out the immense resilience of people facing adversity. The mental health and psychosocial response to complex humanitarian emergencies takes a public health perspective in which communal, psychosocial supports are emphasised, as well as primary healthcare and specialist services. The aim is to enhance community and individual resilience, as well as appropriate therapeutic responses.

This module will help psychiatrists have a better understanding of their role in complex emergencies, in keeping with international guidelines. We will:

  • outline the impact of complex emergencies on mental health and the main tasks of a psychiatrist in this setting,
  • emphasise the need for cultural humility and sensitivity, as well as coordination with all other actors, particularly national and local actors,
  • discuss the lessons learned from studying epidemiology, evidence-based practice and mistakes made, giving examples to show how these have informed current responses.

The module will stretch the skills of volunteer UK psychiatrists. It will change them personally and professionally. There can be few things, however, that are as rewarding and transformative as this type of work.


We are pleased to offer this module free for those without a paid subscription. If you are a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, you can log in straight away using the same username and password with which you access the members' area of the College website. Otherwise, all you need to do is register with the College.

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