Esther Bunyere with her 8 month old daughter and Micheline Shukur, during a mental health session at a school in Kichanga.

Mental Health

Hunger, conflict and natural disasters can have a huge impact on people’s mental health, particularly in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

You can’t function as a human being if you’re struck down by trauma. If you’re suffering from mental health problems, you’re less likely to be able to earn money and eat well.

You’re also less likely to be able to look after yourself and those in your care. This can contribute to life-threatening hunger. So mental health care is not a ‘nice-to-have’ – it’s essential.

Hunger, conflict and natural disasters can have a huge impact on someone’s mental health. The day-in, day-out trauma, the fear of hunger, of death, of losing your family, builds up. It leaves scars. It’s debilitating. If unaddressed, it can be overwhelming.

Impact of maternal depression

Mental health work is part of our fight against hunger. It makes sense. Imagine the life of a mother living under the poverty line every single day, in a constant battle to feed her children and keep healthy herself.

Maternal mental health also plays a vital role in child health and development. The relationship is direct. It’s simple. It’s fundamental.

Research shows that maternal depression often leads to low child immunisation rates, reduced hospital visits and a decrease in breastfeeding. Infants of mothers with poor mental health have been found to have poorer physical, emotional, and mental skills, compared to other children.

Svitlana, a psychologist at the Here and Now mental health project, supported by Action Against Hunger, in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

Mental health support in Ukraine

Here and Now is a group of psychologists in Chernivtsi, western Ukraine, supported by Action Against Hunger. They give their time and expertise to help young mothers and their children cope with the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country.

Learn more
Play videoKarine is an Action Against Hunger mental health expert

A mother's mental health is key

Karine Le Roche, mental health expert for Action Against Hunger, tells us why supporting mother's mental health is key to a child's cognitive development and their recovery from severe acute malnutrition.

The trauma of conflict

Around 142 million children live in conflict zones. Nearly one-fifth of people affected by conflict will need mental health support. One in 20 of those will develop a severe mental health disorder.

Mental health is a global issue. Take the example of the persecuted Rohingyas. Following violence in Myanmar in the summer of 2017, a huge number of Rohingya refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh. Today, more than 600,000 refugees are still living in dreadful, cramped conditions in Cox’s Bazar. This has a terrible impact on the mental health of refugees.

And in Yemen and Syria, fighting has made the already difficult humanitarian crises worse. At the start of 2020, 42 million people across the Middle East region needed urgent help. Living with daily conflict is bound to have an impact on one’s mental health.

In conflict-scarred regions or in emergencies, it’s vital that mental health care services give people the best chance to rebuild their lives, find work, earn a living and support their families.

What’s the solution?

We know that good mental health is vital to tackling life-threatening hunger. That’s why we focus hard on mental health care and psychosocial support as well as nutrition. We do this in many ways.

Baby friendly spaces

In our Baby Friendly Spaces, we help pregnant and breastfeeding women and their children in emergency situations. As well as serving as infant and young child feeding centres, we use them to provide psychosocial help to mothers and children.

Our trained teams of mental healthcare staff help families talk – to each other and with others – to process their common experiences. They also encourage children to play, to strengthen family bonds and to boost child development in fraught circumstances.

They also help build parenting skills, supporting mothers through group discussions to allow them to manage feelings of stress and strengthen their ability to care for their children. They are havens of calm.

We provide welcoming spaces: to give people a breathing space – a safe place away from the angst and conflict of a refugee camp. To relax and spend time with their children, space to breastfeed comfortably and privately, to get safe drinking water and handwashing facilities.
Our colleagues can also refer people to other specialist agencies for help – for vaccinations and antenatal care, for example.

Meet Mary

Mary is an Action Against Hunger mental health worker in Gambella, Ethiopia

Mary, is a psychosocial worker for Action Against Hunger in Gambella.

Part of Mary’s work is running group discussions with mothers at the Baby Friendly Spaces programme. She shares key messages on care practices and holds individual counselling sessions with the mothers who need it most.

So far almost 20,000 women and their children have benefited from our mental health support programmes in the region.

“My motivation to work in Gambella started when I visited the camp months before. I realised how devastating the situation was for the mothers and children due to the trauma they were exposed to.

“When I wake up in the morning I have the feeling that I have an unfinished mission in the camp. I still have to reach out to a lot of people and I feel that I am needed. I need to help this people.”

Mary, Action Against Hunger mental health worker, Gambella

Outreach mental health teams

Our psychologists reach out to the community beyond the walls of their clinics. Taking mental healthcare to people helps break down barriers and is a way to catch people who are missed or hidden. It lowers the bar to making contact – vital when people are depressed and withdrawn or worried about stigma.

Our outreach teams provide group and individual therapy sessions, organise awareness campaigns in the community and train teachers and community leaders on psychological first aid and mental health awareness.

By addressing people’s mental health, we can help their physical wellbeing as well. And mental health support is fundamental to tackling malnutrition.

17 year old Mohammed Riaz , among young men and adolescents at a men's stress management session in the Balukali camp

The Rohingya ‘mega camps’ of Bangladesh

Life, loss and hope through the eyes of three Rohingya refugees.

Read their stories

Why hunger?

Climate crisis

Gai tries to spear fish after his village in South Sudan is flooded.

Rising temperatures and extreme weather are having a huge impact on already vulnerable communities.


South Sudanese refugees supported by an Action Against Hunger member of staff.

Most people facing hunger and malnutrition in the world today can be found in countries affected by conflict.


An Action Against Hunger staff member screens a child for malnutrition in Mali.

Providing children with the nutrition they need means they can fulfil their potential and build a brighter, healthier future.

Related Publications

Proposition Paper

Mental Health

Hunger, conflict and natural disasters can have a huge impact on someone’s mental health. This proposition paper outlines the devastating effects of this and what Action Against Hunger is doing to combat it.

Proposition Paper


Even though the world produces enough food to feed the entire population, four out of ten people across the globe can’t afford a healthy diet. This proposition paper outlines the impact of food insecurity on more than 2 billion people worldwide and what Action Against Hunger is doing to combat it.