SEATTLE, Washington — Since the start of the conflict in Yemen, humanitarian issues have multiplied. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported 2.9 million Yemeni people were displaced from their homes, resulting in millions losing their livelihoods and needing emergency shelter. The crisis has also left 14.8 million Yemenis without access to essential healthcare services, and 17 million without sufficient food supplies. These challenges have exacerbated the issue of mental health in Yemen.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from Armed Conflict
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 15% to 17% of people in armed conflict regions experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Considering a 25-year-old living in Yemen today “has already lived through 15 major conflicts and wars,” according to Columbia Global Centers’ PGIF Project, high rates of depression and PTSD in the country are no surprise. Rates of mental illness in Yemen exceed the WHO estimated values due to high poverty rates and inadequate healthcare access in the country.
Access to Mental Health Services
Years of ongoing conflict has severely impacted the healthcare system in Yemen. In 2017, the WHO representative in the country reported that “the Yemeni health system had collapsed,” leaving half of the country without primary healthcare. While the international community works to restore the health system, Yemeni’s mental health receives very little attention. Many Yemenis struggling with mental health do not know where to turn to as mental health services are not integrated into what remains of the country’s primary healthcare.
In addition to the lack of international and government support for Yemen’s mental health, there are very few doctors who specialize in mental health services in the country. In Yemen, there is roughly one psychiatrist for every half a million people. Moreover, there are only three mental health hospitals in the entire country. As a result, most of those who struggle with mental illness turn to traditional or Quranic healers. Professional help is often only sought after in extreme cases of schizophrenia and
Impact on Children
The traumatic experience of living through the ongoing armed conflict has significantly impacted youth in Yemen. During the first year of the war, the capital city of Sana’a underwent airstrikes multiple times a day. Loud noises and sounds of planes have become particularly triggering for children in the region. As the conflict continued, Yemeni children began exhibiting unusual behavior, such as bedwetting, attempting to isolate themselves and declining academic performance.
According to one study, 79% of children in Yemen experience PTSD. As a result of this condition, many children have developed behaviors and believes that negatively impact their daily lives. For example, 63% of children practice avoidance behavior, 72% have trouble sleeping and 62% feel detached from friends and family. Additionally, the effects of PTSD often cause children to develop subsequent social-emotional, cognitive and behavioral disorders that they may have to carry with them throughout their lives.
Progress and Areas for Improvement
In 2016, the WHO was one of the first organizations to recognize and address mental health issues in Yemen. Using the WHO Mental Health Gap Action Program intervention guide, the WHO instructed health workers outside of the country’s capital to better address the growing issue of mental health.
This aid from the WHO is a step in the right direction; however, international humanitarian organizations can still do more to address mental health in Yemen. The people of Yemen live in a warzone and are in constant fear of airstrikes and other attacks. Years of these conditions have left severe impacts on the Yemeni people. As countries and organizations continue to provide humanitarian aid to the region, they must recognize and address mental health in Yemen. Some ways humanitarian organizations can support mental health in Yemen include providing stress management training and education on trauma coping skills.
—Mary Kate Langan