The Shelter and Mental Health Learning Event in May 2021, Doing More and Doing Better, explored the connections between living conditions, Shelter and Settlements activities and mental health to better understand how the humanitarian Shelter and Settlements sector can contribute to the mental health and psychosocial well-being of people during and after humanitarian crises. The event was a follow-up to the first Shelter and Health Learning Day in May 2020, which was reported in Towards Healthier Homes in Humanitarian Settings. Participants at the 2020 event expressed a collective lack of confidence in being able to articulate the intersections between their shelter activities and the mental health and well-being of the people they aim to serve. The report recommended that shelter practitioners develop a deeper understanding of the terminology of mental health and how mental health relates to shelter.
The 2021 online event was instigated and hosted by the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP), Oxford Brookes University and CARE International UK, both partners in the Self-recovery from Humanitarian Crisis research team. It was attended by over 80 Shelter, Health, WaSH, Protection and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) practitioners and researchers. The event was responding to a need to uncover and better articulate the impacts of existing Shelter and Settlements best practice on mental health and well-being and to plot a path towards more deliberate and documented beneficial impacts.
Experts in MHPSS in emergencies joined the meeting to explain the spectrum of mental health and associated terminology and the fact that MHPSS is a cross-cutting issue, relevant to all sectors of humanitarian support.
They stressed that, while humanitarian crises and associated displacement and loss of home can be traumatic and cause or exacerbate mental distress, most people have the capability to recover. A person’s mental health and psychosocial well-being is affected as much – or even more – by their living conditions as it is by their experiences of crisis and disaster. Shelter is a determinant of mental health and well-being in all emergencies; inadequate shelter and poor access to water and sanitation facilities are among the ‘daily stressors’ that contribute to mental distress for individuals and communities and are detrimental to early recovery and eventual development.
The Shelter and Settlements sector can therefore promote good mental health and psychosocial well-being not only through the services it provides, but how it provides those services. The Learning Event helped participants to reflect on the aspects of ‘good shelter programming’ that already contribute to mental health, such as routine inclusion of people with disabilities, including psychosocial disabilities, in programming. Shelter activities that aim to mitigate gender-based violence also protect and promote mental health, as do programmes that go beyond paying lip service to being participatory in design and implementation. Examples of such activities were shared by shelter practitioners who joined the meeting to present and discuss case studies from Nigeria, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Upgrades to people’s living conditions in post-disaster, conflict and protracted displacement settings can do much to promote both physical and mental health. For example, improvements to flooring, ventilation or insulation from heat and cold can reduce physical ill health and also mental distress. Presenters shared case studies from Bangladesh and North-West Syria to illustrate these links, some of which demonstrated unexpected benefits on the well-being of women as a result of housing upgrades designed to improve the physical health of children. Aesthetic improvements to housing, and the opportunity and resources to choose them, were also widely recognised to contribute to recovery from crisis.