MSc International Disaster Management / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Humanitarian Crises

Course unit fact file
Unit code HCRI60292
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute
Available as a free choice unit? No


This is an optional unit for all HCRI and some GDI PGT students. The course will enable students to critically interrogate the norms, practices and approaches to mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian crises from a social science perspective. Students are therefore not required to have any prior medical knowledge. Instead, the course considers the social determinants of mental health in situations of natural hazards, conflict, displacement and violence. The first half of the module considers the conceptualisations of mental health from a western and non-western perspective, whilst the second half looks at how psychosocial support is created in practice from top-down NGO interventions to community-led approaches.


This unit aims to provide students with a detailed understanding of a currently under researched and seldom taught area of humanitarian practice. The consequences of humanitarian crises are often seen in physical terms, whether through injuries or damage to infrastructures, yet the mental trauma can often have the most damaging and long-term consequences on both victims and aid workers. Therefore, the unit aims to bring these issues to the fore to ensure that future humanitarian scholarship and practice can no longer ignore such an important area of humanitarianism.

Learning outcomes

  • The student will have learnt how mental health is defined and understood in various settings by different actors, whether humanitarian or communities.
  • The student recognise the impact of different psychosocial approaches and be able to critically discuss its implications for the target patients and populations
  • The student will be able to suggest ways forward for psychosocial response in future humanitarian crises.



Two hour lecture each week, complimented by three two hour tutorials.

Session 1: Introduction & Medical approaches to mental health

This session will introduce the module to students and briefly outline the different approaches to mental health from a medical and social science perspective, before handing over to a colleague from the medical school who will introduce the cognitive elements of anxiety, depression and ptsd.

Session 2: Social science perspectives of mental health

Led by either of the two course convenors, this session outlines the key perspectives to mental health from a social science perspective, considering the social determinants of mental health in both the Global North and the Global South.

  • Tutorial 1: Effects of trauma – different humanitarian crises

Led by the tutor, students will have been expected to read three papers in advance on the causes and symptoms of mental health relating to a) natural hazards, b) conflict and violence and c) displacement.

Session 3: Western approaches to psychosocial support

This session can feature a guest (current mental health practicioner such as Hannah Swift) who will detail the current approaches to mental health as practiced in the Global North and in the South by humanitarian agencies. This will cover areas such as counselling, CBT etc.

Session 4: Community approaches to psychosocial support

This session will consider the different ways mental health conditions are treated by non-medical actors, such as communities, religious groups and traditional healers.

Session 5: Psychosocial effects and responses to Gender Based Sexual Violence

This session considers one particular area which is common to many humanitarian crises and looks at the ways in which GBSV causes mental health issues and how mental health issues can be a cause for GBSV. It will examine the variety of approaches used to treat this.

Session 6: Case Study – Western vs non-Western approaches to psychosocial support in Haiti

Led by a medic, Joshua Walker, this session looks at how a non-western approach to the multiple humanitarian crises of Haiti has had much better outcomes that a western approach

  • Tutorial 2: Case studies

In this session, students will be assessed on presentations which detail successful and failed attempts of western notions of psychosocial support in humanitarian case studies.

Session 7: Treating children affected by crises

This session focuses on the ways in which children can be affected differently by humanitarian crises and yet, may necessitate treatment along the lines of adults. When is this appropriate and how is this assessment made?

Session 8: Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK

Led by Ross White (Glasgow) this session considers how the NHS and UK-based NGOs are dealing with mental health as a result of displaced people who now find themselves in the UK. It asks how these institutions can adapt to problems which are not the norm and therefore require solutions which veer away from accepted practices.

Session 9: Prevention, interventions and sustainability

This session looks to the future of mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian crises to outline areas not only for future research but best practices which can adapt to the changing nature of these crises.

  • Tutorial 3: Practical session

Led by Thea Soltau, this session is a practical exploring theatre and performance as a means to treat mental health issues.

Teaching and learning methods

Lectures and tutorials.

The unit will also heaviliy rely upon Blackboard discussion boards as a forum for students to discuss issues arising from the taught components.

In addition, students will be encouraged to use the learning journals as a personal place to discuss any issues which they may not wish to discuss in an open forum.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Gain knowledge of the various understandings and conceptualisations of mental health in the Global North and Global South
  • Understand the implications of humanitarian crises on mental health and the multitude of consequences that may ensue.
  • Critically engage with the practices of psychosocial support from different perspectives and learn from bad and good practice in the past.


Intellectual skills

  • Critically interrogate the literature on social science perspectives of mental health and psychosocial support and have touched on the medical literature.
  • Develop a critical understanding of the way differences between western scholarship and interventions in the field (whether in the Global North or Global South).
  • Compare and contrast psychosocial support interventions in different contexts and crises.
  • Critically reflect on alternative interventions and approaches as practiced by individuals rather than organisations.

Practical skills

  • Understand the basics of medical mental health definitions
  • Be able to translate conceptualisations of mental health to different arenas
  • Verbally present on case studies of mental health and psychosocial support
  • Have ideas for alternative approaches to mental health, such as music and drama for future use.
  • Write a critical essay demonstrating research skills on this topic in various humanitarian settings.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Have more experience and knowledge of mental health than average Masters level graduates who wish to enter the field of aid work.
  • Able to communicate the complexities of mental health to a variety of audiences
  • Develop a more human approach to humanitarian response

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 75%
Oral assessment/presentation 25%

Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Oral feedback in tutorials


Written presentation feedback

Formative & summative

Written feedback on essay



Recommended reading

Breslau, J. 2004. Cultures of trauma: Anthropological Views of Posttraumatic Stress disorders in International Health. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 28 (2): 113 -126.   


Cardozo, et al. (2005) ‘The Mental Health of Expatriate and Kosovar Albanian Humanitarian Aid Workers’, Disasters, 29:2, 152-170.


De Jong, Joop. T.V.M.  2005. Commentary: Deconstructing Critiques of the Internationalisation of PTSD. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 29, pp. 361 – 370.


Galea. S, Nandi, A. & Viahov, D.  2005. The Epidemiology of Post-traumatic stress disorder after disasters. American Journal of Epidemiology. Vol. 27, (1), pp. 78 – 91.   


Giorgia, D. (2014) ‘The Psychological Impact of Working in post-conflict environments: A personal account of intersectional traumatisation’, Journal of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Conflict Affected Areas, 12:1, 91-94.


Henry, D. 2006. Violence and the Body: Somatic Expressions of Trauma and Vulnerability during War. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. Vol. 20. (3) pp. 379-398. 


Johnson, H. & Thompson, A. 2008. The development and Maintenance of PTSD in civilian adult survivors of war trauma and torture: a review. Clinical Psychology Review. Vol. 28, pp. 36 -47.   


Whiteley, R. (2015) ‘Global Mental Health: Concepts, conflicts and controversies’, Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 24:1, 285-291.



Brain Basics:

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 128

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rubina Jasani Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Evidence from the academic and grey literature acknowledges that mental health is a serious issue for humanitarian response, yet, very little is done to calculate the impact, measure, treat or support those who suffer mentally as a result of humanitarian crises. This module will give students who wish to be aid workers a key advantage in what is an extremely competitive job markets. They will have the skills necessary to evaluate current (if any) mental health treatment in the field and suggest ways forward for providing support which is not only context but also evidence driven. This unit also provides a solid basis for those who wish to enter an under-researched area from an academic basis.

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