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Commentary

Dealing with distress from the Marawi siege

The five-month conflict in Marawi City in 2017 continues to affect many Filipinos today. The heavily damaged structures and the thousands who remain displaced are grim reminders of what armed conflicts can do.

Then, there are those who lived through its horrors — people who were trapped for weeks, some held against their will or were subjected to violence, and those whose loved ones went missing.

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Though not in the Philippines at that time, I came across news about Marawi that made me wonder about the conflict’s physical and psychological impact. Nine months on, when I met those who had been severely affected by the fighting, my worst fears came true — there were many in need of psychosocial support, and some of them needing specialized psychological care. For people who have never experienced such type of trauma in their lives, it is difficult to fully understand the Marawi residents’ suffering.

Take the case of Mel (not his real name), who was among those held hostage for 148 nights in Marawi. Now, Mel is one of 52 severely distressed people receiving individual advanced psychological care sessions from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). An independent humanitarian organization that protects and assists victims of armed conflict, the ICRC started its mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) program in Mindanao in October 2018 after assessing gaps in the provision of specialized psychological care for victims of armed conflict.

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Addressing mental health and psychosocial needs is crucial for people, their families and communities to heal from these invisible wounds. The Red Cross’ MHPSS program assists victims of armed conflict experiencing severe psychological distress to facilitate their recovery process. The aim is to guide the beneficiaries in achieving their recovery through consistent but voluntary participation in the sessions, based on their willingness and readiness to move forward.

In the individual sessions, the program provides a safe and trustworthy space for beneficiaries to process their traumatic experience. Many have expressed relief and felt comfortable, safe and understood during the sessions, and, with their psychological burdens reduced, have since become more functional in their daily lives. Mel, for instance, said he learned a lot about himself and his frailties during the sessions: “There is considerably a big change in me because of that program.”

The MHPSS program engages, too, with families of beneficiaries and their communities to make them aware about the needs of distressed people and to encourage social support. It’s important to build awareness and mobilize the community, because there may be someone in their midst who is having difficulty in relationships, in the community or at work, but people don’t usually understand these changes. Recognizing the body and mind reactions due to a traumatic event linked to armed conflicts is key.

Under the program, service providers are also oriented to help identify these trauma reactions, make victims feel safe, build trust, facilitate their recovery and promote the “do-no-harm” policy. Authorities in Mindanao are keen to continue coordinating with the ICRC team in building the capacity of nurses, psychologists and doctors, as well as local stakeholders. Local health government units that deal with conflicts recognize that these training sessions will not only be for emergencies, but also for recovery initiatives to support the victims.

Approaching its first year, the MHPSS program has reached 1,097 people, including those receiving individual care, their families and community members, with various activities in six Mindanao provinces. The program’s teams are constantly inspired by the strength and resilience of the people they work with who, while finding themselves in truly challenging situations, have continued to take care of their families as best they could.

With the full support of Philippine authorities, it is our hope that the MHPSS program for victims of violence due to armed conflict becomes sustainable, with local health workers rendering this valuable service in the years to come. Together, we can bring the much-needed message of hope and encouragement to Mel and others severely affected by conflicts, so they know that they are not alone.

Jesus Miguel Perez Cazorla is a mental health and psychological support (MHPSS) delegate of the ICRC in the Philippines. He started the MHPSS program in Mindanao in 2018, and currently works closely with a team of ICRC psychologists.

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