Attacks on schools and continued violence by armed groups linked to effects on the mental health of the population
Depression, schizophrenia, feelings of isolation: these are just some of the traumas affecting the mental health of the Cameroonian population living in the northwest and southwest regions of the country. These individuals are often forced to flee from village to village, seeking shelter from the relentless attacks and constant threats from the armed groups present in the area.
Since September 2017, the civilian population of the southwestern region of Cameroon has been trapped in the ongoing confrontation among the different non-state armed groups fighting for hegemony over the territory, and the government forces trying to maintain political control of the area. According to data from the Ministry of Administration of the Territory (MINAT) of Cameroon, there are 130,000 internally displaced people in the northwest region, 90,000 in the southwest region and 105,000 returnees.
The civilian population is in the midst of a years-long conflict which produces repeated human rights violations perpetrated by all parties, including physical violence, child abuse, child marriage, rape, death threats, destruction of property, illegal arrests, and torture. This fosters a climate of extreme and protracted insecurity that produces not only physical but also psychological injuries. “No one ever thinks about mental health. Nobody takes care of the psychological state of these people, and the void to fill is enormous,” says Andrea Grande, Project Manager of INTERSOS Cameroon. “The decision to intervene originated from the events of November 2020 in Kumba, from the attack on a school by an armed group, which included the rape of several girls.” The school system is in fact strongly contested by armed groups, who accuse it of carrying a pro-government education program, and the subject of repeated attacks.
The INTERSOS project focuses on psychological support
“We felt the need to do something, to start a conversation and to ensure psychological support for the community that has been experiencing internal conflict for some time with great trauma and repercussions on mental health,” continues Andrea. The project will be carried out by INTERSOS aid workers over the next 12 months, and is a joint collaboration with a local partner who manages a hospital in the affected area. INTERSOS will support 10 hospitals in the town of Kumba, in the Meme department, one of the areas most affected by internal insecurity.
The INTERSOS project focuses on two primary activities: providing community psychological support and clinical-psychiatric hospital assistance for the most serious cases. The INTERSOS team will run training courses for medical staff focused on identification and management of individuals with psychological disorders and create individual and group therapy programs. INTERSOS will identify 6,000 potential patients, of which over 4,000 will follow a psychological support program. Among these, 600 people with more complex conditions will be supported with specific therapy.
Andrea explains well the situation of a “health vacuum” that characterizes those places: “More than 400,000 people live in the city of Kumba and there is only one psychologist –part-time— who has the ability to provide care for people in need of clinical support. To date, he manages about 20 cases per month. Starting this initiative in Kumba gives a strong signal. We will provide care for everyone, from children to the elderly.”
INTERSOS intends to develop its capacity in this sector in order to expand its activities in the two regions of the Northwest and Southwest. A network of individuals working in the community, such as teachers, religious representatives and women leaders will be involved in identifying beneficiaries of the mental health support programs, with whom it will be possible to reach the many girls who have survived violence.