Content Warning: sexual violence, talk of suicide
On International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2023, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Officers from JRS Lebanon, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya, the United States, and Poland formed a panel to discuss how fundamental mental health is in the success of women in their communities.
Women face gender-based violence and discrimination that make them more vulnerable to mental health issues. Such challenges are compounded for refugee women and girls who are also dealing with the trauma from conflict, war, and natural disasters that have forced them to flee their homes. The panelist focused on how JRS has mainstreamed MHPSS programs to help beneficiaries harness coping mechanisms and find healthy solutions.
Heavens Lamaro, the JRS Uganda MHPSS Officer, spoke specifically about the mothers seeking support in Kampala. She explained that these women often experience loneliness and struggle to cope as they work through losing family members and the challenges of supporting their families physically, emotionally, and financially.
Through accompaniment, lending a listening ear, and providing friendship, JRS can help these mothers feel less alone.
She told the story of one woman who experienced an especially difficult pregnancy. The JRS Staff in Kampala became integral members of her support system and when her daughter was born, the woman asked Ms. Lamaro to come see the baby.
“She called her baby Hope because when JRS supported her during the pregnancy, it gave her hope,” Ms. Lamaro said.
Who sustains and drives these MHPSS programs? The refugee communities themselves. Every officer on the panel told stories of their beneficiaries banding together and creating support groups to talk about their emotions, share their experiences and brainstorm different ways to mitigate hurtful mental conditions.
Leen Farhat, a MHPSS Officer with JRS Middle East and North Africa explained how in times of emergency, people within the area are always the first to respond before other humanitarian groups or organizations. Communities in the affected areas are the most in tune with the needs of their people which is why it is so important to observe how they problem-solve before intruding.
Ms. Farhat also explained that while JRS cannot always stop gender-based issues from affecting beneficiaries in their offices, specifically sexual harassment and child labor issues, they can provide systems and offer programs to help these women and girls get through difficult circumstances.
Before the virtual event ended, Ms. Farhat shared a story of a harrowing night at a JRS/MENA office. The day before the office would close for the winter holidays, a refugee in the community said in a one-on-one counseling session that they were thinking about committing suicide.
The JRS staff rallied around that beneficiary and stayed up all night to assess the risk and figure out how to support her. Ms. Farhat was proud to report that the individual survived and through continued counseling has seen improved mental health. MHPSS programs are truly lifesaving.
Joan Rosenhauer, the Executive Director of JRS/USA, recently traveled to JRS Poland. JRS Poland was established by the Society of Jesus in the country last year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
She shared stories from some of the Ukrainian women she met there. “The pain is raw…their tears flow readily,” she said. Because Ukrainian men between 18 – 60 years old have to stay and defend the country, most of the 8 million refugees who have fled are women and children.
“We’ll have so much to rebuild…it might not even be in my children’s lifetimes,” said Natalia, a Ukrainian refugee who now works at JRS Poland.
Ms. Rosenhauer said MHPSS is one of the most important programs in Poland because it helps the beneficiaries process the trauma of fleeing home while also fostering an opportunity to hope for the future.
In a conversation with another Ukrainian woman at the office, Ms. Rosenhauer asked if her if there was any message she would like to pass along to the greater JRS community.
“I want to thank you for JRS. It is a safe space…without their help it would be unbearable. They don’t know how much they help,” the woman responded.
If you want to learn more about the specific ways JRS works to support women and girls experiencing displacement around the world, visit this page on our website.
To learn more about how you can support lifesaving, mental health intervention programs around the world, click here.