Philippines: psychosocial activities for children relieve anxiety, aid recovery

December 2013

Psychological first aid in emergencies, a WHO-recommended approach, is helping children who are suffering after the crisis.

In many places affected by Typhoon Haiyan, children are returning to their schools to seek normalcy and comfort.

Three girls show their school books, Philippines.
WHO/A. Bhatiasevi

Eleven-year-old Marie Catherina Al Gado Jangson walks out of her school in the town of Guiuan, holding tight to the books she managed to retrieve from her wrecked classroom: “I found some books. They are not my favorites and are a bit wet but I am happy,” she says.

Meanwhile, in another school a few kilometres away, Jayon Coronel of Community and Family Services International (CFSI), is running and playing with a group of about 15 boys and girls, aged between 7 to 12 years.

Close by, her colleague Iza Baironisa is sitting with a group of mostly girls, talking about what school activities they enjoyed most.

Practical care and support

Jayon and Iza are providing psychological first aid to the children, a WHO-recommended approach to help people of all ages who are suffering after crisis events. This first aid, given by trained volunteers and professionals, focuses on practical care and support to those affected by the disaster.

“It is common to have strong feelings after a difficult event,” says Dr Mark van Ommeren, a WHO specialist in mental health after emergencies. “We need to take particular care of and reach out to those who are most affected. Children are a group who are likely to need special attention.”

“We know from experience that natural disasters create opportunities to dramatically improve the long-term availability of mental health care services... we have powerful examples and advice to share with countries so they can build back better.”

Dr Mark van Ommeren, WHO specialist in mental health after emergencies

The best ways for families and communities to help children are to keep them safe, speak kindly to them, ask them to share their concerns and listen to them, according to Dr van Ommeren. They should have time to play and return to the normal activities of daily life, including going to school, he says.

The school-based activity organized by CFSI began with 36 children on the first day, and jumped to 250 participating children the following day.

Iza and Jayon are now recruiting volunteers, mainly university students, to carry out activities so more children can attend.

Iza says it is very important to be constantly reminded of why they are involved in such work. She recalled a recent incident when a five-year-old girl refused to interact with anyone at the recreational activity. After her second day, Iza and her colleague decided to visit the girl’s home to discuss the situation with her mother. There, they noticed that the girl was more open and relaxed when she was in the company of her mother and it took about 10 minutes before she started smiling and playing with them: “I felt that we had achieved our goal for the day,” says Iza.

Building back better

“All children need extra attention and care now,” says Dr van Ommeren. “But some with severe emotional difficulties must have access to community mental health services.”

WHO advises countries to make the most of the attention and resources flowing into recovery efforts to establish a more robust mental health system.

“Looking forward, we know from experience that natural disasters create opportunities to dramatically improve the long-term availability of mental health care services,” explains Dr van Ommeren. “As tragic as these events are, we have powerful examples and advice to share with countries so they can build back better.”

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