In Valle del Sula, in Honduras, many people have experienced displacement, endemic violence and natural disasters.
This area, in the north of Honduras, near the border with Guatemala, has for decades struggled with clashes between criminal groups. So when two devastating hurricanes – Eta and Iota – hit Valle del Sula in 2020, the effect was particularly severe. Thousands of people lost everything and many were displaced for a second or third time.
In Valle del Sula, disasters have consequences beyond material problems—they also have a negative impact on residents’ mental health. For those struggling, it can be hard to know where to turn.
“In Honduras, accessing mental health services can be very challenging,” said Ileana Merino, program coordinator for HIAS Honduras. “So in a context where the state is not able to provide that for people, the community can play a major role.”
This is where EMPODER stepped in. A community-based intervention implemented by HIAS Honduras, USAID and FUNADEH, a local organization, EMPODER provided mental health support, prevention of gender-based violence (GBV), and cash and voucher assistance (CVA) to over 17,500 people in San Pedro Sula and Choloma between 2021 and 2023.
The project targets Hondurans who have been internally displaced, who have been affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes Eta and Iota, who have experienced forced returns from other countries, and who have experienced violence, particularly GBV. EMPODER has proven to be particularly innovative in improving mental health outcomes. HIAS Honduras worked closely with FUNADEH to identify 30 people who were already leaders or well known in their communities to become mental health ambassadors.
Participants received training in cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness techniques to provide individuals with practical tools to improve their psychological resilience and ability to cope with external stressors without having to disclose traumatic events.
Ambassadors observed group sessions where people could talk about their experiences in a safe environment and carry out practical exercises. They also received training on how to identify GBV situations in order to connect GBV victims with specialist services provided by the government and other organisations.
In addition to training ambassadors, HIAS trained over 100 members of local government in techniques to provide psychological support to people in need in their communities.
“Community ambassadors have a better capacity to intervene in situations that put the mental health of people in their communities at risk than external service providers,” said Eli Meléndez, HIAS Honduras director. “This is because of the trust that already exists between ambassadors and community members.”
Community members report significant improvements in their mental health after participating in the program. 72.3% reported an increase in their overall well-being after completing group psychology sessions led by the ambassadors, while 95.1% of participants with caring responsibilities reported feeling better equipped to deal with problems after taking part in EMPODER.
“The most important thing for us was to give communities the tools to be autonomous and determine their own well-being,” Merino said. “Ambassadors were learning things that other people could replicate in their own personal context. It gives people the feeling that they can take back control of their lives.”