MSF: COVID-19 further fuels mental health crisis in Dadaab as durable solutions falter

A mental health crisis is growing in Kenya‘s Dadaab refugee complex, where hundreds of thousands of Somalis have been stuck for decades now. A fatal mix of pent-up despair, anxiety and fear, combined with new uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, is forcing refugees to take extreme measures.

Teams from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) run a mental health clinic at our 100-bed hospital in Dagahaley camp, one of three that make up the Dadaab refugee complex. The clinic provides medical treatment for patients with various mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, as well as personality and anxiety disorders.

MSF is witnessing a dramatic deterioration in the mental health of camp residents. In Dagahaley, the number of attempted suicides is rising, and psychosocial consultations have jumped by more than 50 per from last year, over the same time period until September – from 505 to 766.

In the past two months, five people have reportedly attempted suicide in the camp, two with fatal results.

Many refugees in Dadaab were already frustrated with the lack of progress in finding durable solutions. Now they are faced with the new COVID-19 situation, where the meagre humanitarian assistance they depend on has been further reduced amid donor concerns of widening funding gaps. The World Food Programme has been forced to cut food rations by 40 per cent and many other agencies have drastically reduced their presence, severely disrupting access to basic services.

These cuts in food rations, along with a lack of gainful employment and an ever-present uncertainty about the future, have created a new mental health crisis.

In August, Haret Abdirahman’s 24-year-old son killed himself in Dagahaley camp, after what he says was a life with no future prospects.

“Despite finishing his high school education, he kept talking about how life was difficult for him in the camp without a job,” says Haret. “He would often say that he wished he could take his own life, but I never thought he would actually do it.”

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