Task-shifting for refugee mental health and psychosocial support: A scoping review of services in humanitarian settings through the lens of RE-AIM

Implement Res Pract. 2021 Mar 17:2:2633489521998790. doi: 10.1177/2633489521998790. eCollection 2021 Jan-Dec.


Background: Decades of war, famines, natural disasters, and political upheaval have led to the largest number of displaced persons in human history. The refugee experience is fraught with obstacles from preflight to resettlement, leading to high rates of mental distress including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. However, there is a paucity of mental health services for refugees in transit. To meet the needs of this vulnerable population, researchers are experimenting with teaching lay community members basic tools for the delivery of mental health and psychosocial support services (MHPSS). However, there are research gaps about the use of implementation science to inform the delivery of applicable interventions, especially within low resource settings, and even less in the humanitarian context.

Methods: This review utilizes an implementation science framework (RE-AIM) to assess the reach, effectiveness, adoption, implementation, and maintenance of these interventions. Studies included varying interventions and modes of delivery within refugee camp and urban settings. A comprehensive search strategy led to the inclusion and analysis of 11 unique studies.

Results: While current research documents adaptation strategies, feasibility, and fidelity checks through routine monitoring, there is still a dearth of evidence regarding capacity building of lay providers in humanitarian settings. Barriers to this data collection include a lack of homogeneity in outcomes across studies, and a lack of comprehensive adaptation strategies which account for culture norms in the implementation of interventions. Furthermore, current funding prioritizes short-term solutions for individuals who meet criteria for mental illnesses and therefore leaves gaps in sustainability, and more inclusive programming for psychosocial services for individuals who do not meet threshold criteria.

Conclusion: Findings contribute to the literature about task-shifting for MHPSS in humanitarian contexts, especially illuminating gaps in knowledge about the lay counselor experiences of these interventions.

Plain language summary: There is a growing number of refugees forced to make homes in temporary camps or urban centers as they await resettlement, a process that can last decades. These refugees are at risk of serious mental health outcomes due to ongoing stress and trauma. One strategy commonly used in global mental health is the training of lay providers to deliver basic mental health and psychosocial programming to communities. While this tactic is currently being tested in refugee settings, there is limited evidence about the implementation of this strategy. The following scoping review aims to assess the implementation of task-shifting interventions within refugee settings, through the use of a robust implementation science framework.

Keywords: Task shifting; international; psychosocial intervention; scoping review.

Publication types

  • Review