Mental health care and the politics of responsibility in humanitarian emergencies

Authors: Margaret Wilson*, University of Washington
Topics: Political Geography, Medical and Health Geography
Keywords: mental health, humanitarianism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Chairman's Boardroom, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Who is responsible for humanitarian emergency response, and what does this responsibility entail? The politics of responsibility in humanitarian emergencies can be fraught—in some cases, for instance, the need for external aid is construed as a failure on the part of national governments to adequately care for their citizens—and the provision of aid must be negotiated among a variety of different actors. While humanitarian emergency response has traditionally been oriented toward the goal of saving lives-at-risk, a more expansive view of the humanitarian moral imperative has driven the production of new forms of aid that go beyond ensuring survival, including, in recent years, an increasing focus on mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) in emergencies. Drawing from institutional archives, qualitative interviews, and a survey distributed among MHPSS professionals, this paper will examine the evolving role of MHPSS in humanitarian emergency response. While MHPSS has become a more widely accepted component of humanitarian emergency response, the boundaries between MHPSS and other forms of aid—such as the child protection and gender-based violence “areas of responsibility” within humanitarian protection—are not always clear-cut, and the official guidelines for diagnosing and treating mental disorders in emergencies often do not reflect the challenges and complexities of providing this type of care. Considerations of whether, how, and by whom MHPSS should be incorporated into humanitarian emergency response raises larger questions about the logics of humanitarianism and the relationships among the people, places, and institutions that are drawn together in humanitarian crises.

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