Support for mental health during the AN1H1 flu epidemic in Mexico

The importance of mental health was evident during the recent AN1H1 flu epidemic in Mexico.  It is said that the fear or anxiety generated by the epidemic was spread more easily than the virus itself.  Additionally, there was a burnout of the relief teams resulting from the stress caused by the increased workload and pressure generated by an emergency.  

The first actions done were directed at decreasing the stress level in the population.  The Secretary of Health from Mexico DF through its General Department for the Promotion of Health delivered messages about the existence of effective preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic measures to face the epidemic, also laying emphasis on the importance of an active role from the community.  A second recommendation was not to medicalize or give a psychiatric diagnosis to psycho-social reactions that understandably occur under these circumstances.  From a mental health perspective it is more a matter of stress than of trauma and could generate more psycho-emotional distress than an actual mental disorder.  The recommendation was to include this non-medical perspective in the documents or guides that were developed.

This event showed the vulnerability of those who work in an emergency. For this reason, the process has been oriented towards developing recommendations for the protection of the worker’s mental health and the search for healthy work environments.  The qualification in mental health of the leaders from the organizations involved during an emergency is a key point to consider. Knowledge of the IASC Guide  on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, elaborated by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) provides multi-sector, integrated and well structured strategies.  Through the General Department for the Promotion of Health, the Federal District’s Secretariat of Health trained 8 institutional leaders on how to use this guide.  Also the PAHO/WHO Practical Guide to Mental Health was distributed.

The return to schooling was supported with another guide for school authorities developed by the Department for the Promotion of Health. Later with the support of PAHO/WHO a Teacher’s manual for psychosocial support and mental health was designed to help them approach students’ reactions in stressful situations.

PAHO/WHO collaborated with the Federal District on the issue of psychosocial and mental health care of the population affected by the disease and their relatives as well as of the health professionals who worked during the epidemic.  Along the same lines, they cooperated with the Under Secretariat of Health’s chronic diseases area in the development of an investigation about the stress suffered by families affected by the disease and the physical and psychological wearing down of the professional health workers involved. 

At first PAHO mobilized an emergency team which included two mental health experts, Dr. Gaspar Da Costa, psychiatrist from the Republic of Panama, and Dr. Victor Aparicio, Subregional Advisor for Mental Health from PAHO/WHO for Central America, the Hispanic Caribbean and Mexico