Shifting to Tele-Mental Health in humanitarian and crisis settings: an evaluation of Médecins Sans Frontières experience during the COVID-19 pandemic

Confl Health. 2022 Feb 14;16(1):6. doi: 10.1186/s13031-022-00437-1.


Background: 'Tele-Mental Health (MH) services,' are an increasingly important way to expand care to underserved groups in low-resource settings. In order to continue providing psychiatric, psychotherapeutic and counselling care during COVID-19-related movement restrictions, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a humanitarian medical organization, abruptly transitioned part of its MH activities across humanitarian and resource-constrained settings to remote format.

Methods: From June-July of 2020, investigators used a mixed method, sequential explanatory study design to assess MSF staff perceptions of tele-MH services. Preliminary quantitative results influenced qualitative question guide design. Eighty-one quantitative online questionnaires were collected and a subset of 13 qualitative follow-up in-depth interviews occurred.

Results: Respondents in 44 countries (6 geographic regions), mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa (39.5%), the Middle East and North Africa (18.5%) and Asia (13.6%) participated. Most tele-MH interventions depended on audio-only platforms (80%). 30% of respondents reported that more than half of their patients were unreachable using these interventions, usually because of poor network coverage (73.8%), a lack of communication devices (72.1%), or a lack of a private space at home (67.2%). Nearly half (47.5%) of respondents felt their staff had a decreased ability to provide comprehensive MH care using telecommunication platforms. Most respondents thought MH staff had a negative (46%) or mixed (42%) impression of remote care. Nevertheless, almost all respondents (96.7%) thought tele-MH services had some degree of usefulness, notably improved access to care (37.7%) and time efficiency (32.8%). Qualitative results outlined a myriad of challenges, notably in establishing therapeutic alliance, providing care for vulnerable populations and those inherent to the communications infrastructure.

Conclusion: Tele-MH services were perceived to be a feasible alternative solution to in-person therapeutic interventions in humanitarian settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they were not considered suitable for all patients in the contexts studied, especially survivors of sexual or interpersonal violence, pediatric and geriatric cases, and patients with severe MH conditions. Audio-only technologies that lacked non-verbal cues were particularly challenging and made risk assessment and emergency care more difficult. Prior to considering tele-MH services, communications infrastructure should be assessed, and comprehensive, context-specific protocols should be developed.

Keywords: MHPSS; Remote mental health; Tele-counselling; Tele-mental health; Telepsychiatry.