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Why Mental Health Support for Children, Families and Frontline Workers Is Critical During a Crisis

Mental health and psychosocial support interventions can counter the negative impact of adversity and help children recover from stress, develop resilience, and flourish and set them on the path to reach their potential.

For over 20 years, Save the Children and Johnson & Johnson have worked side by side around the globe, building the resiliency of children through innovative approaches to health and development, while serving as the leading voice for those who need it the most. One thing we have learned is that caring for a child’s physical health is vital, but insufficient.

War, displacement and natural disasters have exposed many of the children we serve to extreme stress over long periods. The COVID-19 global pandemic has compounded stress, anxiety and inequality in every space. The need for strong and sustainable mental health support systems that can meet the complex and changing needs of both children and families, as well as the frontline workers supporting them, has never been greater or more evident.

Despite these extreme challenges, there is hope. We know that high quality mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) interventions can counter the negative impact of adversity and help children recover from stress, develop resilience, and flourish and set them on the path to reach their potential.

In early 2020, Save the Children with support from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation launched a new multi-year global MHPSS initiative to support the mental health and psychosocial well-being of children and families—and the frontline workers who serve them.

“The mental and physical toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light how much work truly remains to help children in need across the world. Now more than ever, the MHPSS initiative is critical to supporting the mental health and well-being of children and their families, and to sustaining the frontline workers who care for them. Johnson & Johnson is proud to partner with Save the Children to help the world’s most vulnerable and to positively change the trajectory of human health,” said Peter Fasolo, Executive Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer at Johnson & Johnson and Save the Children Board Member.

This partnership supports communities in crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Lebanon and the United States. What sets this project apart from our previous endeavors is that it delivers support through multiple systems. By bringing together community health workers, social workers, teachers and mental health professionals, we can give children the full suite of supports that they need.

Our approach, in collaboration with the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation, takes what we already know is working and scales it, while designing, testing and piloting solutions that could potentially help bridge the gaps in health systems.

Overall, the project aims to reach nearly 35,000 children, caregivers and frontline workers in the first four years. It will transform the way Save the Children addresses the mental health and psychosocial support needs of children and families globally and will ensure that the mental health of children—and those who care for them—is central to the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The project will improve and expand our structured psychosocial support programming for children that, prior to the pandemic, we delivered in schools and community-based childcare centers but have now adapted for home delivery in response to COVID-19 restrictions. It will also strengthen the way in which we link children and families to specialized mental health services to address complex MHPSS needs.

Innovation lies at the heart of the partnership between Save the Children and Johnson & Johnson. We have developed new ways to get paraprofessional counseling to the children and families who are often hardest to reach. We fill the gaps in the professional mental health services in local communities, by training non-mental health professionals that already support children and families on a regular basis—such as community health workers, social workers and school staff—to provide basic counseling supports, both to individuals and to small groups. The goal is to provide more focused support than what is possible through classroom or center-based group activities, so that children and their caregivers are better able to process emotions, recover from stress, cope with new stress as it arises, and increase resiliency over time. This should give more children and families access to basic counselling, improving stress recovery, well-being and resilience.

We know from our decades of work that children in crisis are not the only ones in need of MHPSS. The staff and frontline workers who support them every day must contend with dramatic levels of stress and anxiety. By ensuring access to mental health and psychosocial support for our own staff and partners, and especially frontline workers, we can help them build resilience while continuing to serve others.

In a year during which natural disasters, conflict and pandemic have ravaged millions of lives, the power and urgency of a partnership like this one is clear. Save the Children’s relationship with Johnson & Johnson is one that has produced dramatic benefits for the world’s most vulnerable children. Our hopes are that this year will be a better one. Our work together is one way to make that hope a reality for those who need hope the most.