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Alumnus leading initiatives in mental health

Posted: 24 August 2022

Alumni, Health,

Due to the conflict in Myanmar, the number of Internally Displaced People (IDP) are on the rise. Australia Awards alumnus, Dr Mahkawnghta Awng Shar, who is Rawang (Kachin) ethnic, has been contributing to complex public health and humanitarian responses for IDPs and vulnerable communities in Myanmar.

Since his return in 2017, he has been working with international non-government organisations in the humanitarian sector in Rakhine and Kachin.

Addressing the mental health of IDPs has been a key driver behind the activities delivered by Dr Awng Shar.

‘In Myanmar, mental health is not understood well. People are not aware that everybody is dealing with mental wellness every day, similar to our physical health. People living in internally displaced camps will have more mental health challenges. Sadly, there is limited interventions on mental health for them because of limited awareness on mental health among medical professionals who provide primary health care services in the camps.’ Dr Awng Shar explains.

When working with the International Rescue Committee as a Health Coordinator to lead a humanitarian health program in Rakhine, he found that the majority of the outpatient consultations were related to unexplained clinical complaints which is one of the signs of mental health issues.

Dr Awng Shar shared the findings with the mobile clinic team who visit families in the IDP camps. Mental health mainstreaming training was provided to the mobile clinic team and it changed the way they understood the patients and the benefits of longer quality consultation time to screen and address mental health needs.

As Programme Analyst for sexual and reproductive health and rights with UNFPA in 2018-19 he had the opportunity to study another course on mental health.

Following this, he led the dissemination of Mental Health Psychosocial Support training to health care staff in Kachin State together with gender-based violence actors and collaborated with civil hospitals where senior consultant psychiatrists joined the training to boost the capacity of medical doctors to handle psychiatric issues in humanitarian settings.

“Health staff said the training we provided was even benefiting their personal and family life – from active listening to psychological first aid.”

Dr Awng Shar believes that “now mental health is discussed more widely, and more and more humanitarian health staff are trained on mental health. Donor support for mental health activities has also increased.”

“We still have a long way to go but we are on a reasonable track. All the credit should go to the mental health leaders and experts working in Myanmar and I am proud to be a part of this movement, especially for the initiatives in Rakhine and Kachin states among the IDP camps,” he says.

Dr Awng Shar completed a Master of Public Health degree at The University of Melbourne in 2016 on an Australia Awards Scholarship and has continued to apply this education to his professional field work in Myanmar, acknowledging that it “equipped [him] to be able to design health programs based on the actual need of the beneficiaries on the ground.”

Since early 2022, he has been working as a Health and Nutrition Specialist for UNICEF in Sittwe, Rakhine, supporting children and pregnant women to improve their health, nutrition and immunisation status with mental health mainstreaming.