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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 114-115

Shaping policy and practice: Mental health and psychosocial work – the legacy of Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond

Research Associate, University of Oxford Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford, UK

Date of Web Publication28-Jun-2019

Correspondence Address:
Maryanne Loughry
Boston College School of Social Work, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/INTV.INTV_7_19

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How to cite this article:
Loughry M. Shaping policy and practice: Mental health and psychosocial work – the legacy of Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond. Intervention 2019;17:114-5

How to cite this URL:
Loughry M. Shaping policy and practice: Mental health and psychosocial work – the legacy of Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond. Intervention [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 May 29];17:114-5. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org//text.asp?2019/17/1/114/261695

Doctor Barbara Harrell-Bond’s 1986 book, ‘Imposing Aid’, arguably the earliest and most influential book on emergency assistance to refugees, observed that humanitarian aid programmes did not take account of the need for psychological services for African refugees (Harrell-Bond, 1986, p. 285). Barbara, in her early fieldwork in Sudan, had witnessed first-hand both the displacement of people and the devastating consequences of civil war. However, it was not until 2007 that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the primary mechanism for interagency coordination of humanitarian assistance, ‘a forum involving the key players UN and non-UN humanitarian partners’, published the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. With this publication came an acknowledgement of the psychological and social suffering experienced by affected populations in armed conflict and natural disasters, as well as guidelines for how those providing humanitarian assistance should best respond. For decades, this had been a disputed area with trauma specialists and psychosocial workers arguing, across a very long spectrum, what if anything was appropriate to do. Before the establishment of the IASC, the Sphere movement, established in 1997 to influence the quality of humanitarian work, had shied away from addressing mental health and social impact because of the lack of consensus amongst researchers and practitioners.

When Barbara established the Refugee Studies Programme (RSP) in Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford in 1982, she embedded many of her insights from her fieldwork and her subsequent book into the programme. Amongst these elements were the psychological effects on war and displacement. In the RSP Foundation course, she introduced courses on nutrition and psychology. Practitioners were taught not only theoretical approaches but also how to deliver practical responses in the field.

In the early 1990s, UK scholars, Judith Zur, Jane Mocellin, and John Berry from Toronto taught a range of courses in the RSP on refugees and psychosocial issues, the psychological acculturation and adaptation of refugees and cross-cultural psychology. In 1992, Caroline Williams from the USA taught a short course on the psychosocial adaptation of refugees. Earlier that year, Barbara had also sponsored a course on the mental health of children exposed to violent environments. Parallel to the foundation and short courses, psychosocial topics were taught at the RSP practitioner summer school, an annual event that brought to Oxford humanitarian practitioners from around the world. Palestinian child psychiatrist Eyad El Saraj, Alastair Ager, Giorgia Dona and Derek Summerfield were regular contributors on psychological and mental health issues. After the Balkans war, Barbara invited Marina and Dean Ajdukovic to Oxford to report on the first-hand research they had conducted in their own country while personally under siege during war. Many more, too many to name, also made contributions.

Over this period of time, the RSP was not just hosting scholars, but was also playing a major role in shaping the thinking on mental health and psychosocial work in humanitarian work. Significantly, Barbara’s own anthropological background ensured that there was continuous multidisciplinary and practitioner engagement.

In the early 2000s, what was now the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) continued to shape the international understanding of mental health and psychosocial work. Jo de Berry, Jo Boyden and Jason Hart engaged in rich multi-country research on the effects of conflict on children. The Andrew Mellon Foundation endowed RSC with sufficient funds to develop an online psychosocial training, manuals and subsequently research funding linking scholars with humanitarian agencies seeking to identify evidence of best practice in psychosocial work. Coordinated by Alastair Ager and Maryanne Loughry, the Andrew Mellon funded project made a major contribution to the field and with research colleagues like Michael Wessells going on to facilitate the development of the 2007 IASC Guidelines and its associated work.

Undoubtedly, Barbara’s anthropological work, her belief in the need to address the psychological needs of refugees and her capacity to network and co-opt scholars played a very significant role in ensuring that mental health and psychosocial needs of affected populations are now recognised as a major component of humanitarian work. In particular the work of the RSC, over decades, highlighted that this aspect of humanitarian work needs to be culturally sensitive and relevant to people on the move.

Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond died on 11 July 2018.

  References Top

Harrell-Bond B. E. (1986). Imposing aid. Emergency assistance to refugees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Back to cited text no. 1
Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). (2007). IASC guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. Geneva: IASC.  Back to cited text no. 2


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