Reflections from the 18th Mental Health in Complex Emergencies Course
by Ryan Heffron
A triumphant 2022 class just completed the Mental Health in Complex Emergencies (MHCE) program. The online semester, which lasted from August to December, was marked by friendship and a community of mutual learning. The course trains mental health professionals and program staff to establish mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) programs in humanitarian emergencies such as conflict, post conflict, and disaster settings with refugees or internally displaced populations. It also is open to Fordham graduate students of humanitarian studies and related fields.
For most of the course’s life, professors and students met in a physical classroom over a period of 12-days. In July 2021, the course was re-established on a virtual platform. While announcing the transition on YouTube, co-founder of the MHCE course Willem van de Put noted: “the times are changing, as they say, and they are changing quite fast now. The humanitarian world is not what it used to be — crises are different than they were ten to twenty years ago. We need to be sure that we’re up to the challenge to meet the needs of the people who really need support.” In January 2022, it completed its second year as a 15-week distance learning program. The essence of mutual learning and community only grew in the online space.
IIHA’s Executive Director Brendan Cahill reflects on the MHCE course, saying “every year it is a great honor for me to sit and listen [to the students]. The reason we have these programs in the first place is to bring together this community of practice, this family of knowledge. I personally learned as much from all of you [students] as I do from Claire, Lynne, Willem, Marcio, Pieter, and Larry… So thank you for all the work you put in, even when you had a lot [going on] already from your professional life.”
Dr. Lynne Jones discusses the course’s wide appeal: “you do not have to be a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or health worker to be in this course. We also welcome people with emergency experience: camp managers, program managers, water or food people. Why? Mental health is a cross-cutting issue. The better we learn about it, the better it will be done and protected.” Dr. Jones’ assessment rang true throughout the course, which often highlighted the impact that economic, political, and other systematic issues have on a person’s mental well-being.
The MHCE course premiered in 2004. Its co-founders, Dr. Lynne Jones and Willem van de Put, are joined by other veteran humanitarians: Dr. Marcio Gagliato, Dr. Pieter Ventevogel, Claire Whitney, and Professor Larry Hollingworth.
Co-founder Lynne Jones, OBE, FRCPsych, PhD is a child & adolescent psychologist, researcher, humanitarian, and writer. Dr. Jones married into a warzone, began working with refugees, and hasn’t looked back. She has been in the humanitarian space for thirty years now. Until 2011, Dr. Jones served as the senior technical advisor in mental health for International Medical Corps. Dr. Jones recently published the book Migrant Diaries with the Refuge Press. She consults for the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and UNHCR.
Co-founder Willem van de Put is a psychosocial research fellow. Like Lynne, he wears many hats. Willem is the co-founder of Culture4Change. The organization looks to tap into the wellspring of culture for positive change in our ailing world. He started Mental Health and Psychosocial Programming for Doctors without Borders — Holland. Further, between 1998 and 2017 founded the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) in Cambodia and served as director for HealthNet-TPO.
Pieter Ventevogel, MD, PhD is a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist with over 20 years of humanitarian experience. He is the Senior Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Officer for UNHCR. Prior to 2013, Dr. Ventevogel consulted as an expert on MHPSS in post-conflict settings. For eight years he worked with HealthNet-TPO as a full-time mental health advisor. He has worked in Afghanistan, Burundi, DRC, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania and Uganda. Dr. Ventevogel attests to the course’s interdisciplinary nature, “it’s a practical approach which links academic research to clinical and programmatic practice. It is that wisdom which makes this course so special.”
Claire Whitney is the Senior Mental Health Advisor for the International Medical Corps (IMC). She has been at IMC since 2013. Whitney holds master’s degrees in Social Work (MSW) and International Affairs (MIA) from Columbia University. She has over 15 years of experience working in emergency, conflict, and post-conflict settings. Her career has brought her to the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, & Yemen), Turkey, Greece, Nepal, Haiti, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, and more. Further, she explains, “we will learn from each other in this course! Our hope is to cultivate increasing support and advocacy for MHPSS programming for the vulnerable populations across the globe.”
Marcio Gagliato, PhD, is the Co-Director of the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Network (MHPSS.net). The platform is a space for connecting people and networks. On MHPSS.net, practitioners can share resources and build knowledge on MHPSS in humanitarian emergencies and situations of chronic hardship. Dr. Gagliato is also a Global Humanitarian Advisor; he consults for the United Nations (UNICEF, WHO, PAHO and IOM) the Red Cross (ICRC and IFRC), International NGOs (Center for the Victims of Torture, Save the Children, CARE, International Medical Corps, and SOS Children’s Villages), and the private sector. Marcio says, “I have recommended this course over the years for people seeking the knowledge, practical skills, and critical thinking required to implement mental health programming in complex, ever-changing humanitarian settings.”
A Learning Ecosystem
The heart of the course is the students, a truly global group of 92 practitioners from 46 different countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Each brought their unique life experience and professional perspectives to the course. Students’ occupations varied from medical practitioners, to humanitarians, to researchers and social scientists. These strangers made fast friends and supported each other in navigating the workload.
Responding to the post-course survey, a student affirmed the benefits of a global classroom: “the participants also work in different humanitarian [settings, bringing] different experiences. The fact that it is provided online gives opportunities to colleagues to participate from the comfort of their homes and with less expenses.”
Students became the facilitators of Thursday discussion sessions. Dr. Ventevogel observed the exchange, “it is so clear from this course that we truly learn together. I’ve taken the lessons learned from your experiences to heart. I hope that, particularly, you can stay in touch with each other. Professional development happens when we learn from one another, in work and in life.” Affirming the easy air of our Zoom space, one student said “discussions were always welcoming, non-judgemental, and interactive.” On-the-ground insight from students helped the class to approach issues with several perspectives.
One student praised the course for its dynamic approach to mental health and humanitarian crises itself: “the instructors were very critical of the dominant approach to mental health in our world systems.” At the same time, students clearly left with a toolkit to make practical impacts. Another student reflected:
“The most valuable components were those covering the planning and implementation of MHPSS programs. Further, we trained in the standards for monitoring and evaluation. We addressed child-focused programming and a survivor-centered approach to gender-based violence. We covered clinical aspects of grief and mourning, severe to common mental health conditions, normal and abnormal reactions to stress.”
The course was a space for both veterans and newcomers to thrive. One student remarked, “It was simultaneously an introductory and expert level course. If you were learning for the first time, it was perfect. If you already knew a lot, you wrestled with ideas that challenged your way of thinking.” The 18th Mental Health in Complex Emergencies course was truley a testimony to its own importance.