Engaging with religion at the local level for mental health and psychosocial wellbeing following humanitarian crises

People affected by forced displacement and humanitarian disasters often consider that their psychosocial wellbeing and spiritual needs are as significant as their physical survival. Through supporting mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, religious communities, narratives, beliefs and practices can play an important role in supporting the abilities of individuals and communities to manage trauma and crises. However, secular humanitarian agencies are often reluctant to engage with local, faith-based responses to displacement. In this blog, Ellen Goodwin examines the role of western bias against religion, implicit in the work of many northern humanitarian actors, and traces how this impacts on the ability of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) programmes to reflect the lived religious experiences of members of local religious communities, and provide equal access to MHPSS programs. This post is published as part of the Refugee Hosts Faith and Displacement blog series and Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda, which aims to offer insights into the important personal, political and communal roles that faith plays in framing diverse responses toward forced migrants.

This post was posted on 15 March 2019

If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece, or visit our Faith and Displacement series. 

Engaging with religion at the local level for Mental Health and Psychosocial Well-Being following humanitarian crises

By Ellen Goodwin

Following the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published their report: The New Way of Working. The report calls for bold and visionary reform to the humanitarian architecture for more effective humanitarian action. It focuses not only on meeting the immediate needs of those affected by humanitarian crises but on reducing risk, vulnerability and overall need.

To achieve this, the report’s recommendations can be summarised according to three principal themes; collective action, localisation and bridging the humanitarian-development divide. OCHA’s The New Way of Working calls for the coordination of various humanitarian actors, using a range of instruments and modalities. It seeks to build local capacity so that humanitarian programs remain in keeping with local realities of crises and it aims to address the underlying causes of humanitarian crises through multi-year, vulnerability- and human-focused interventions.

Community-based resilience  has come to be viewed as a key mechanism for making this vision of more effective humanitarian programs a reality. A commitment to community-based resilience seeks to improve the ability of local communities, often affected by increasingly frequent and protracted humanitarian disasters, to absorb disturbance and to change and adapt while retaining the same functions. This has seen an emphasis on mental health and psychosocial well-being emerge over the last decade. The increasing number of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) programs and the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings testify to the need to address the trauma caused by humanitarian crises in order to help communities recover from, or at least manage the effects of this trauma.

Psychosocial and spiritual needs are often identified by people affected by humanitarian disasters as equally important as physical survival. Religion at the local level is already intricately involved in supporting mental health and psychosocial well-being. Throughout history religious leaders and institutions have cared for people with psychosocial concerns and mental illness and this remains the case in many humanitarian contexts.

Religious communities, narratives, beliefs and practices influence the abilities of individuals and communities to build resilience to trauma and crises. Religious beliefs can encourage more optimistic worldviews, giving people and communities a sense of meaning and purpose even in times of extreme trauma and stress. Religious beliefs can also help comfort people in times of bereavement and give people hope.

Local religious psychosocial practices, embedded in religious communities, can also help build community resilience. Religious rites and rituals define passages of life for many and maintain a sense of normality and continuity in times of disruption. Local religious organisations and associations often promote local level support and greater psychological interaction. Praying for change can give people a sense of control in times of crises, helping people and communities feel empowered and invested in their recovery.

Of course, religious, faith-based or spiritual coping is not monolithic. Such diversity is often used as an argument against engaging with local faith-based approaches to MHPSS as it makes it difficult to incorporate local religious beliefs and practices into more general MHPSS programs. Religion is also often condemned as being exclusive and discriminatory, and religious beliefs are often criticised as being fatalistic; for inspiring passivity in the face of humanitarian crises that are a result of ‘Acts of God’ or Karma. While such beliefs could undermine MHPSS programs, evidence suggests that this is not often the case, that there is a distinction between religious beliefs and doctrine and how they are lived and embodied.

It is important that local religious approaches to MHPSS are subject to criticism to ensure that they are making a positive contribution to people’s and communities’ ability to recover from trauma. However this is true of any actor involved in MHPSS programs. Much of the resistance to engaging with religion at the local level is based on the western bias against religion, informed by modernisation and secularisation theory, which remains implicit in the work of the many northern humanitarian actors who continue to dominate humanitarian policy, programming and decision making.

This is reflected in the current state of MHPSS programs which remain notably secular, despite the often inseparability of religion and MHPSS provision in communities affected by humanitarian crises. This is problematic because it means that the language and activities of many MHPSS programs do not reflect the lived religious experiences of local religious communities. In practice this marginalises religious people by creating a disconnect between religious people affected by humanitarian disasters and MHPSS programs. Ultimately, the formal humanitarian sphere’s desire to foster resilient communities as part of their vision for more effective humanitarian action is missing out on a source of untapped potential by ignoring the role of local faith actors and communities.

The formal humanitarian sphere’s narrow and instrumental engagement with religion over the past decades has emphasised the role of international faith-based organisations and religious leaders, at the expense of other forms of religious expression. As a result, we fail to learn from southern responses to humanitarian disasters, in this case specifically those of local faith-based actors. In order to benefit from the so-far relatively untapped potential of religion at the local level, the formal humanitarian sphere needs to act on its commitment to work with a variety of actors and to build local capacity. Beyond this, the formal humanitarian sphere needs to improve its faith literacy so that it can plunge into the messy world of religious beliefs and practices, and how they are lived and embodied, if it really wants to find a more effective way of working.

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For more readings on the themes explored in this piece, click here for the Refugee Hosts Faith and Displacement series, here for other contributions to our Refugee Hosts ‘Contextualising the Localisation of Aid‘ blog series, or below to access the following recommended readings:

Ager, J., Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Ager, A. (2015) ‘Local Faith Communities and the Promotion of Resilience in Contexts of Humanitarian Crisis’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 28(2): 202-221. 

Carpi, E.  (2018) Does faith-based aid provision always localise aid? 

Jayawickrama, J. and Rehman, B. (2018) Before defining what is local, let’s build the capacities of humanitarian agencies.

Kidwai, S. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Seeking Evidence to Provide Protection: How Can Local Faith Communities Support Refugees?”

Reyes, D. (2018) In God We Trust: Faith communities as an asset to refugee youth in the United States

Zbeidy, D. (2017)  Widowhood, Displacement and Friendships in Jordan

Rowlands, A. (2018)  Faith and Displacement Series: Introducing the Series

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Local Communities and Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda

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Featured image: A village overlooking the road from Amman to Damascus (c) E Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Jordan October 2018

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