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A Unique Program Providing Mental Health and Psychosocial Support to Children in Crisis, and the Frontline Staff Who Serve Them

An interview with Sara Hommel, Senior Advisor, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support at Save the Children

For over two decades, Johnson & Johnson and Save the Children have worked together building the resiliency of children through innovative approaches to health and development, while advocating for those who need it the most. One thing we have learned working together is that looking out for a child’s physical health is crucial, but healthy children also deserve strong and sustainable mental health systems that meet the needs of children, their families, and those working to protect them.

We sat down with Sara Hommel, Save the Children’s Senior Advisor for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support, to learn more about this important issue and how companies like Johnson & Johnson are stepping up to holistically understand, reduce and address children’s mental health and psychosocial needs.

Q: Sara, tell us about yourself and the work you do at Save the Children. What is your area of expertise?
A: Sure. I have been working on global development and humanitarian response programs for over 20 years, mostly focused on children and families. I currently lead the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support portfolio at Save the Children U.S. I have always had a keen interest in children’s programs—from global education to poverty alleviation, health and nutrition programs—their well-being and protection has always been at the core and heart of my work.

An area that I am also very passionate about is mental health and psychosocial support. Right now at Save the Children, and with the great support of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, we are working on high quality mental health and psychosocial support interventions (we call it MHPSS for short) to counter the negative impact of some tremendous hardships that children around the globe face, such as war, climate disasters, displacement and COVID-19. The ultimate goal is to help them recover from this stress, encourage their resilience, and unlock their potential.

Moreover, this global MHPSS initiative also supports frontline staff working with children in crisis, both at Save the Children and at local partner organizations. Because these individuals also experience high levels of stress, supporting their mental health and psychosocial well-being is key to effectively continue to serve children and families.

This is a remarkable initiative that works to positively change the trajectory of human health and well-being for so many people, including children, families and staff.

Q: Can you elaborate more on this program and the mental health interventions you are supporting? Why should mental health be a cornerstone of all humanitarian work?
A: In a nutshell, Johnson & Johnson Foundation and Save the Children are aiming to reach about 35,000 children, caregivers and frontline workers in the next three years. Our hope is to not only transform the way we address mental health and psychosocial support needs but to put MHPSS front and center in humanitarian assistance programs. Together, we are working to provide psychosocial support to children and their families through schools, community centers, which we refer to as Child Friendly Spaces, and most important during the COVID-19 crisis, in homes. We also aim to train non-mental health professionals that already work with children and families. By training them, they will be able to provide basic counseling and identify and refer children who need specialized mental health care. The bottom line is we want children and their caregivers to be able to better process feelings, cope and recover from stress, foster their mental well-being and resilience, and receive the support needed through a mix of methods and delivery mechanisms.

We are also working to support our staff with access to MHPSS interventions to ensure their well-being. People who live and work in humanitarian settings are routinely exposed to continuous and prolonged stress. If humanitarian workers are not properly supported to cope and recover from such stress, their mental health and well-being will suffer, and so will their work, and in particular, their ability to provide adequate support to children and families. It is extremely important to address this as these individuals’ work has a direct impact on the well-being of children, families and other members of the community. This is the very reason why MHPSS should be a cornerstone of all humanitarian work. All humanitarian work should prioritize mental health and psychosocial well-being, and that starts with our staff and the children, families and broader community we work with.

Q: Describe how this project supports staff well-being in humanitarian settings.
A: Through this project, Johnson & Johnson Foundation and Save the Children are ensuring that Save the Children is able to implement a multi-layered approach that offers various options for staff members to access MHPSS activities and services. Some of the initiatives we currently undertake are customized for different settings and tailored to follow COVID-19 restrictions. These include access to professional counseling, peer support groups, and well-being activities such as meditation, yoga, and sports or recreation. The idea is to have different types of support available, so that staff members can choose what works best for them.

We believe this is an exemplary project that can show the importance of having staff well-being at the front and center of everything we do.

Q: Do you think this project has influenced your organization as a whole? If so, how?
A: Interesting question. The short answer is “yes.” This is a first-of-its-kind project for Save the Children focusing on children, families and staff, including implementing partners’ mental health and psychosocial well-being and it has really elevated the conversation amongst our peers about prioritizing mental health organization-wide.

This project was a catalyst for us to develop a Guidance Note on Staff Well-being that promotes conversations, activities and consultations throughout Save the Children offices. We are definitely building upon our experiences and we will share the lessons learned widely so that the prioritization of MHPSS for children, families and staff continues to grow and flourish at Save the Children and elsewhere.

Q: Do you think COVID-19 increased the need for staff well-being? If so, can you elaborate?
A: COVID-19 definitely increased our understanding of the need for staff well-being. Before the pandemic, few people experienced living and working in a long-term, high stress context. Now all of us understand what it is like to live and work in a high-stress setting over a prolonged period of time. It is this new understanding that is fueling the prioritization of staff well-being across organizations. So many people now comprehend why it is necessary.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to promote staff well-being in their community/organization?
A: Two suggestions immediately come to mind. The first is to build on whatever experience and momentum you already have. Highlighting what is already working and identifying spaces to improve and expand support for staff well-being is a great way to build on whatever conversation has already started. It is also important to have an open and inclusive process to discuss and plan staff support activities. For staff well-being strategies to work, we really need everyone on board, so an inclusive process from the start is incredibly important.

The second is to operationalize staff well-being as part of your standard ways of working. The more we normalize it, the easier it will be to make it part of everything we do. If we can ensure that everyone understands the importance of staff well-being and how easy it is to make it part of our daily work environment, by operationalizing staff well-being support activities as regular, normal components of all projects, programs and strategies, it can become part of everyday work culture.

Additionally, Johnson & Johnson’s new Resilience Toolkit, which consolidates existing evidence, best practices, guidelines and frameworks for supporting staff well-being, is available to download on The Resilience Collaborative webpage. This page is part of a new global learning community from the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation.

Q: How do you think mental health awareness will evolve over the next decade and beyond?
A: I am thrilled to see a growing interest in mental health and psychosocial support, especially in humanitarian programs, and a stronger commitment from companies and organizations around the world to address the importance of staff well-being in their own work environments. I expect that this interest will continue to grow and MHPSS will be prioritized on an even greater scale in years to come. I hope that in the coming decade, it will become a normal part of everyday life.

Q: Where can we find more information about the Johnson & Johnson and Save the Children partnership?
A: Information on our long-standing partnership with Johnson & Johnson can be found on our Corporate Partner webpage HERE.