Although the Ebola epidemic in Liberia peaked two years ago, survivors are still feeling the emotional impact of a virus that ravaged their country. More than 4,800 people died in 2014 and 2015, and in March of 2016, it was estimated that 1 in 5 Liberians suffered from some sort of mental illness. PTSD and depression are most common, although other types of illness are also present in communities. Medecins Sans Frontiers psychologist Frederic Gelly remarked “[citizens] continue to suffer from an extreme sense of guilt – for being the first in their family to catch Ebola and spread it to others, or for being the only one who survived. Two years later, they ask themselves over and over again: ‘Why did I survive and others die?”
There are several factors that play into the psychological impact of the disease, apart from the severity of the epidemic. One major contributor is the interruption of religious rites around death and dying. In response to the Ebola crisis, the government had to put strict regulations on death and burial or cremation rites. As a result, many people felt that they could not properly honor their loved ones. Another is the stigma of mental illness in Liberia. Until recently, mental health services were hugely under resourced in the country. Many physicians did not know how to care for patients suffering from mental illness, and community members did not know how to support those with PTSD or depression. Finally, many people in Liberia also remember the civil war that ended in 2003, and historical trauma of poverty and violence. The Ebola outbreak brought back bad memories for many Liberians, and reminded them of harsh realities.
Although the situation in Liberia is challenging to tackle, WHO has made an effort to increase the number of mental health workers, and to train 1,300 people in a weeklong intensive course by the end of 2016. They are confident that this will begin to make an impact, especially as they work to reduce the stigma of emotional trauma in the country.
Elisa Hofmeister -18