Amid conflict, mental health care gives Yemeni survivor of violence a new lease on life
SANA'A, Yemen - By the time conflict escalated in Yemen in 2015, Salwa* had already survived a lifetime of hardship. “My parents divorced when I was 5 years old. This was the start of all my worries and fears,” she told UNFPA recently.
“I moved to my grandfather's house and had to live with an uncle who had mental health issues. My uncle sexually abused me repeatedly. I was very young. Maybe 10 years at that time.”
As an adult, she tried to start over. She found work at a religious school, eventually becoming a teacher. Then the conflict broke out, forcing her to flee from Taizz to the capital, Sana’a. There, she got married, hoping to start a new chapter.
But the war – and the economic troubles that came with it – caused too much of a strain. The breakup left Salwa in a state of depression so deep that, for the first time, she visited a psychiatrist.
Instead of helping her, the psychiatrist tried to abuse her.
“He tried to harass me in the same way as my uncle,” she said. “It was a big shock. I had already lost confidence in everyone, and when it happened again from a caregiver I could not take it anymore.”
Conflict and mental health
Salwa is far from alone. Mental health needs are serious, yet often overlooked, in times of crisis. In Yemen, exposure to trauma and violence is widespread as the conflict enters its fifth year. Social protection systems have broken down, leaving people increasingly vulnerable to violence and abuse. The needs are particularly acute among women and children, who comprise over 76 per cent of the 3.3 million people displaced.
After being harassed, Salwa stopped therapy completely, and her condition deteriorated until a friend persuaded her to seek help at the Family Counselling Centre in Sana’a, one of the three psychological care centres for survivors of gender-based violence that UNFPA supports in Yemen. The centres have helped more than 10,000 people since 2018.
Recovery did not come easily to Salwa. She was not convinced the treatment would help, and she did not improve much in the beginning.
But her counsellors were dedicated. Slowly but surely Salwa began to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel.
“There was a huge difference in the way I was treated. This changed my mind a lot,” she said of the counselling she received, adding that it taught her new skills to cope with trauma. She began using art to express her feelings.
Salwa even undertook marital counselling with her estranged husband. When he proved uncooperative, the therapists supported her decision to file for divorce.
After only six months, Salwa felt she had a new lease on life.
Necessary in every humanitarian response
Survivors of trauma and conflict like Salwa are joining experts, academics, policymakers and ministers at the International Conference on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Crisis Situations in Amsterdam this week. The aim of the gathering is to recognize that mental health care and psychosocial support are not luxuries but necessities, and to push for their inclusion as standard in every humanitarian response.
“Now I enjoy all the details of my life,” said Salwa. Today, she volunteers at the Family Counselling Centre, sharing her experiences with other survivors.
“I try to help other women. I feel I have a purpose now and contribute to my community.”
Salwa says she feels reborn. She recently celebrated the anniversary of the day she entered the Centre for treatment, bringing in a “birthday” cake. On it was the message: "Salwa deserves the best."