It has been well documented that  COVID-19 measures of social isolation and movement restrictions can impact and exacerbate pre-existing symptoms, especially for those with mental health needs or at risk of gender based violence (GBV). Preventative health measures limit access to in-person support and coping activities that our clients often rely on to deal with their problems.

As lockdown measures came into place in March, at SEED we quickly adapted to using phone and internet technology to remotely continue providing comprehensive support to existing clients and accommodate the increased new referrals from other service providers and the community under lockdown. 

The transition was relatively smooth due to trusted relationships between clients and SEED staff, but there were some challenges. “SEED implemented telehealth as a new approach to delivering high-quality mental health and case management services, such as video and phone calls. We needed to quickly increase the expertise of SEED staff about remote service delivery through increased planning and training, and to also get feedback from our clients about how it is working, and to integrate that learning back into our planning,” explained Kani Areef, SEED Director, Dohuk Programs.

Video calls were found to be the most effective mode of delivering MHPSS services, to those clients with access to private spaces. Clients thought of creative ways to maintain privacy such as visiting neighbors or SEED centers for the calls. 

“Unfortunately,” Areef commented , “this approach was not possible for every client due to privacy or restriction issues, hence phone calls were another effective measure. For clients with limited privacy, such as those living in tents or close quarters, simple emotional support was conducted via phone until in-person meetings were made possible through urgent field visits.”

The movement restrictions and lockdowns were also challenging to our staff that work in SEED’s shelter for survivors of human trafficking, the first privately licensed shelter of its kind in Iraq. “It has been a challenging time for sure,” our Senior Program and Protection Manager explained. “There were times we stayed overnight at the shelter due to the movement restrictions,” he added. For migrant workers who suffered traumatic and often abusive circumstances in Kurdistan, our top priority is to get them home. Unfortunately,  for clients who have been in our shelter since March, it hasn’t been possible to repatriate any of the survivors with the airports closed. To respond to their increased isolation and extended stay, we devised new mental health and psychosocial support (PSS) activities to support them including planning and safety planning for their return home (it is unfortunately common for migrant workers who have survived trafficking to be re-victimized upon returning home). 

All of SEED’s service delivery work is supported and guided by our Technical Unit (TU), which is composed of clinical psychologists and social workers who advise our service delivery staff on best international MHPSS practices and standards. The TU works hand in hand with program managers and other staff to implement practical solutions for challenges on the ground. This has been especially true during COVID as SEED transitioned to remote service provision, keeping in mind emerging guidance on working on humanitarian, anti-trafficking, and GBV programming during the COVID pandemic. 

SEED has maintained regular contact with clients by phone, while taking into account shifting safety and risk considerations, especially for GBV survivors who are now more exposed to potential violence from abusive partners during lockdowns. In these cases, SEED has worked with sensitivity to avoid placing clients in danger with a mis-timed phone call. 

As a provider of mental health services, SEED has continued to put an emphasis on the well-being of its staff during the COVID-19 crisis. “We’ve encouraged staff well-being by offering a variety of activities and resources. We understood that we’d need a diverse offering of support to have something for everyone, as each person has their preferences for coping with the situation. The SEED Social Committee has been organizing monthly activities to help staff stay connected, and we’ve increased to weekly meditation, pilates, and yoga sessions including with an external instructor. We’ve also encouraged staff to take advantage of our external counselors and reach out for support, as everybody is under a great deal of stress,” said SEED’s PSS Technical Advisor.

These services have been provided under our PRM and JTIP funded programs.