Amid COVID-19, Delivering Mental Health Care To Thousands In Peru

App helps screen, increase access to specialists during pandemic

Posted on Oct 28, 2020

A staff member with Socios En Salud, as PIH is known in Peru, does a door-to-door mental health screening with a patient after a chatbot app connected them.
A staff member with Socios En Salud, as PIH is known in Peru, does a door-to-door mental health screening with patient Nancy Zavaleta Ullón in a neighborhood near the capital, Lima, after they were connected by the Bienestár app. Photo by William Castro Rodríguez / Partners In Health

Maritza Sáenz has been a singer for years; but when her mother died of a lung disease, the music lost its meaning.

It was a loss that the resident of Callao, Peru—a rural community outside of the capital of Lima—describes as devastating. Sáenz, a single mother who shares a home with her daughter, grandson, and 85-year-old father, recalls not being able to sleep or concentrate on things that usually brought her joy. It felt like something was missing.

It wasn’t until she began speaking with a psychologist through Socios En Salud, as Partners In Health is known in Peru, that things began to turn around.

“Today, I feel more relieved,” says Sáenz, who speaks with her counselor on the phone. “She understood me, despite the distance, and knew how to treat me.”

Sáenz is one of nearly 5,000 Peruvians who have accessed mental health services through PIH since the start of the pandemic. This mental health support comes as part of PIH’s COVID-19 response in Peru, where PIH has provided more than 22,800 COVID-19 tests and offered more than 3,000 people social support, including medicine, food, and housing assistance.

“When we connect people, both physically and emotionally, within a community or a family [with] the resources they need, we will be providing them better opportunities,” says Carmen Contreras, director of mental health in Peru.

PIH has worked in Peru for more than 20 years. Its mental health work there has included providing tuberculosis patients with psychological support, establishing a safe house for women living with severe mental health conditions, and training local residents as community health workers, who refer patients to mental health centers and connect them with care.

During COVID-19, that work has adapted to also include group and individual counseling for families mourning the loss of loved ones, as well as an innovative messaging app called Bienestár. The app, run by PIH’s team of local psychologists and community health workers, offers mental health screenings and connects patients with care virtually. It currently serves three of the communities where PIH works.

Catherin Rodríguez, who supervises PIH’s work in the Trujillo community, says mental health is crucial for everyone. That’s because it’s never just one person who is affected. Mental health has ripple effects—on a family, a household, and a community.

“It is essential for a person to be concerned about their mental health,” says Rodriguez, “because this action can be replicated at home with their entire family and so, little by little, be concerning for overall health.”

Stigma, says Contreras, is also a barrier to accessing mental health care. Yet people have to realize they are not alone in experiencing difficulties. “Emotions are part of being human,” she says.

Carmen Contreras is director of mental health in Peru.
Carmen Contreras is director of mental health in Peru. Photo by William Castro Rodriguez / Partners In Health.

Contreras has seen SES’s mental health work evolve over the years. That journey has been both professional and personal—especially this year.

“A close relative of mine nearly died from COVID,” she says. “It was actually very difficult for my family. I spent a month dealing with that…we were all devastated.”

Much of that devastation came from the fact that her family, like many others affected by COVID-19, didn’t know how to tell other relatives when their loved one’s condition was worsening.

“With COVID, we need to work on that,” says Contreras, whose relative has since recovered. “It’s not just oxygen, or saturation, or the lungs; it’s also how we deal with our emotions.”

A pandemic and the uncertainty it brings—from work to health care to housing—takes a toll not only on physical health, but on mental health. That makes a mental health response to the pandemic all the more vital.

For Sáenz, the journey has been difficult. But she is making music again.

“It has been very beneficial for me to have a psychologist by my side,” she says. “Now, I can breathe. I don’t feel pain in my chest. The oppression that I had I was able to lift thanks to the specialist’s help.”

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