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International Community Must Respond to Mental Health Crisis in Yemen, Say Human Rights Experts

Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies testify before UN about dire effects of war on mental health

Geneva, December 19, 2018—The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies traveled to the UN to bring attention to the grave situation of mental health in Yemen, and to push for improvements in how the Government of Yemen and the international community respond to the mental health needs of Yemenis.

“The problem of mental health in Yemen is an invisible issue, largely ignored by the Yemeni government, and the world. People in Yemen face continuous suffering, but little action is being taken to support them,” said Dr. Fawziah Al-Ammar, a psychology expert who traveled from Sana’a, passing through innumerable dangerous checkpoints so that she could speak at the UN.

Four years of war has devastated the country, and created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yemenis face daily exposure to stress and violence, including Saudi-led airstrikes, Houthi detentions, closed airports, poverty, starvation, and cholera.

The Clinic and the Sana’a Center shared with the UN their recent report Mental Health in Yemen: A Neglected Crisis, and their research on the magnitude of psychological distress in Yemen. “80 percent of children in Sana’a show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Thisis an alarming statistic and if governments do not act, there is a risk of long-term, multigenerational harm,” Dr. Al-Ammar told governments at the UN who were meeting to discuss Yemen’s human rights record.

There is a dire lack of mental health service providers in Yemen, and the government itself has no mental health policy. This neglect will potentially impact generations of Yemenis, as poor mental health can affect family structures, social cohesion, physical health, educational outcomes, and even reduce support for peaceful solutions to conflict.

“Sustainable peace and a positive future for Yemen require that urgent steps be taken to respond to the mental health crisis,” said Waleed Alhariri, director of the US office of the Sana’a Center, and fellow-in-residence at Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. “Mental health must be incorporated into Yemen’s peace processes and agreements.”

The Clinic and the Sana’a Center also recommended that the Government of Yemen create a national mental health policy, ensure budget allocation for health services, and that the Sana’a airport be re-opened and salaries for public health sectors be paid, to reduce hardship on Yemenis.

At the UN, Dr. Al-Ammar and Clinic student Darshana Mitra LLM ’19 presented at a special session on Yemen, and the Human Rights Clinic and the Sana’a Center met with over 20 governments in Geneva.

Clinic student Amanda McNally JD ’20 conducted advocacy alongside the Sana’a Center experts. “We met with governments from around the world to ensure that mental health is put on the international agenda and to encourage governments to begin to take action,” McNally explained.

The advocacy at the UN was part of a joint project between the Human Rights Clinic, Sana’a Center, and the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis to research and improve mental health in Yemen.

“We are bringing together experts in Yemen, psychology, public health, and human rights to conduct joint research to understand how the war is impacting the right to mental health and to produce evidence-based recommendations to improve conditions in both the short and long-term,” said Professor Sarah Knuckey, the Director of the Human Rights Clinic. “To date, there has been little research or awareness, and we are trying to change that.”

The advocacy in Geneva was conducted as part of a human rights accountability process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Through the UPR, each country’s human rights record is reviewed by all UN Member States every five years. During the UPR, member states make recommendations for improvements to the state under review. Member states look to civil society organizations to highlight the human rights violations that are taking place in the state under review, and to suggest recommendations and questions that can contribute to accountability for human rights abuses.

The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic works to advance human rights around the world, and to train the next generation of strategic advocates for social justice. The clinic works in partnership with civil society organizations and communities to carry out human rights investigations, legal and policy analysis, litigation, report-writing, and advocacy.

The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover political, social, economic and security related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally. Founded in 2014, the Sana’a Center is one of the few independent research centers that continues to operate in Yemen.