University of Queensland weighs up the global burden of mental health in conflict

Yemeni security forces loyal to the Huthi-rebel government stands guard as Muslim worshippers perform Eid al-Fitr prayers at a square in the capital Sanaa on June 5, 2019, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

By U2B Staff 

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Armed conflicts reached an all-time high in 2016 – 53 in 37 countries. While the physical ravages of war are well documented – the destruction to homes, loss of life, life-changing injuries – the emotional toll is less evident.

While harder to detect, it is no less damaging and no less painful to live with for the survivors of armed conflict. That’s why the University of Queensland (UQ) teamed up with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the University of Washington to get a better understanding of the prevalence of this silent affliction.

UQ School of Public Health researcher Dr Fiona J Charlson said the study highlighted the serious effects of war on mental health.

“The burden of mental disorders is extremely high in conflict-affected populations,” Charlson said in a statement.

“It is estimated that one in five people in such areas will develop a mental health disorder at any point in time and the rate of anxiety and depression is five times higher than the rest of the world.


“The high prevalence shows the sheer enormity of the problem.”

The figures are substantially higher than previously thought. Data published in 2016 suggested one in 16 people in conflict zones had mental health problems. But the WHO says its figures are more robust because they are based on 129 studies, of which 45 have not been included in estimates before.

The study also shows that about nine percent of conflict-affected populations have a moderate to severe mental health condition; substantially higher than the global estimate for these mental health conditions in the general population.

“The direct and repeated exposure to trauma and armed conflict takes its toll on the mental health of populations,” Charlson said.

“There is also the increased stress involved as people try to go about their normal day, finding food and trying to make an income amongst the conflict.


“Poverty is endemic in wars, and this has strong links to mental illness which we can see reflected in the findings.”

In 2016, about 12 percent of the world’s population were living in a conflict zone and 69 million people were forcibly displaced by violence – the highest number since the second world war. While this is devastating, Charlson believes there could be an opportunity to incorporate mental health care during humanitarian crises.

The latest research will be used to update practical guidelines for providing care and be integrated into the WHO Humanitarian Intervention Guide, which acts as a guideline of moderate interventions for non-specialist healthcare providers where access to specialists and treatment options is limited.