The UN is providing psychological support to many of the displaced, who face the fact that returning home is an uncertain prospect.
When conflict broke out in the Senegalese village of Kaddy in early April, she was forced to leave her belongings behind to save her family.
“We lost everything.
When we left, we couldn’t take anything with us.
Our animals, our food; everything was destroyed in the fight.” Together with her husband and her seven children, Kaddy fled north to Gambia, eventually reaching a small village in the Janack district, in an area popularly known as ‘Foni’.
Left with nothing, Kaddy and her family had to rely on the hospitality of the local community for food and shelter.
“We feel like a burden to the other communities that help us,” laments Kaddy.
“We are ashamed to be ‘taken care of’, but we have no choice.”
Kaddy is among thousands of Senegalese who were forced to flee to Gambia, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Agency, after clashes broke out along the Gambia-Senegal border in territory occupied by the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC).
Another 6,200 Gambians have been internally displaced, and a further 8,500 affected in host communities, according to the Gambia’s National Disaster Management Agency, by the conflict, which dates back four decades.
Post Traumatic Stress Awareness Recognizing the significant impact of conflict on the well-being of displaced people, the International Organization for Migration (IOMOpens in a new window) mobilized its expertise to provide mental health and psychosocial support.
In collaboration with Fundación Activistas Solidarios, IOM deployed a mobile psychosocial team, made up of a psychologist, two social workers, an educator and a community mobilizer, to provide direct services to affected populations.
A key approach the mobile team is employing is psychoeducation, in which volunteers meet and engage communities to discuss mental health issues and potential signs and symptoms of stress.
“The purpose is to raise awareness about the experiences of people who have gone through post-traumatic stress or who have been negatively affected by the change in environment brought about by the crisis,” said Salomón Correa, General Director of Fundación Activistas Solidarios.
These sessions, held in groups, take advantage of traditional socio-cultural activities, such as regular attaya (tea) sessions, to facilitate discussions.
“We can teach them coping mechanisms during arguments,” says Amie, a volunteer psychologist.
“After educating them about possible signs and symptoms of mental health issues, they are often very interested in talking to us in private.” Through psychoeducation sessions, the mobile team can identify people with specific mental health needs that require further attention and make follow-up visits or referrals as needed.
‘This is one of the things that helps me the most in my daily life’ Fatou is one of many who have benefited from dedicated and personalized counseling sessions.
A Gambian who previously lived in Casamance with her Senegalese husband, her entire family fled when the conflict broke out.
Fatou left her house abruptly and did not have time to collect her belongings, as she was concerned about safely evacuating her 10 children, one of whom has a physical disability.
For more than two months, she has been living in her uncle’s compound in Janack.
Fatou has resorted to odd jobs, including providing labor on farms during harvest to sell produce on behalf of farmers to make ends meet.
However, the stress of keeping her family in a new environment, coupled with resurfacing painful memories of the shootings she witnessed, has had a negative impact on her mental well-being.
“To date, this is one of the things that is helping me the most in my daily life,” Fatou says of the psychosocial support she has received.
“I am very happy to speak with them [the mobile team] and share my feelings and problems without hesitation.” Fatou’s sessions with the mobile team have helped give him a sense of mutual solidarity with other people who have been displaced: “It helps me to know that we are not alone in this.”
No end in sight Months after the outbreak of the conflict, there seems to be no end in sight.
“We’re not sure if it’s okay for us to come back or not.
Right now, we have no idea,” says Fatou.
Psychosocial support is helping those most affected to cope with the drastic changes in their lives and to pick up the pieces that were left behind.
As Kaddy shares, “Just being able to talk to someone alone about our struggles in this crisis really lifts us up.
It helps us feel a little more comfortable even though there is no certainty about the future.” “Since participating in these sessions, I have worried less,” agrees Fatou.
In a world where mental health often takes a backseat, the work of the six-person mobile psychosocial team demonstrates the benefits of prioritizing mental health needs.