Substance use disorders in humanitarian settings can and need to be addressed: here’s how

© UN Photo/Sahem Rababah

According to UNHCR, there are more than 80 million people who have been forced to flee war, conflicts, and persecution around the world. Populations affected by humanitarian emergencies are often vulnerable to substance use and substance use disorders, yet prevention, treatment, and care services in such settings are scarce. UNODC’s Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Section is working with WHO and UNHCR on developing a handbook to address substance use disorders in humanitarian settings; and ultimately increase access to evidence-based substance use disorder treatment for refugees and displaced populations around the world.  

As part of the process, in 2019 UNODC organized an expert group meeting with more than 100 experts from all regions to identify information available on substance use as well as related interventions in humanitarian settings. As a follow-up and based on results of a Delphi survey, a paper was published in September 2021 on priorities for addressing substance use disorder in humanitarian settings, which highlights existing gaps in knowledge related to the epidemiology and the treatment of substance use disorders in humanitarian emergencies. The paper presents steps needed to improve access to evidence-based substance use treatment and care in humanitarian settings, which will be considered for the development of the upcoming UNODC/WHO/UNHCR handbook.  

The interagency collaboration on this topic, as well as close coordination with the IASC MHPSS partners, to mainstream substance use interventions as a standard component of mental health interventions, is much-needed and timely with regard to addressing an urgent and - so far - neglected topic in humanitarian assistance and the scientific literature.