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Streets Tell Stories: The Effects of Neighborhood Social Environment on Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing in the Aftermath of Conflict

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What enables people displaced by conflict to return home, and live in peace? Streets Tell Stories, a study published by Cordaid and Social Inquiry provides fresh insights on links between mental health, social cohesion, and peace.

In Iraq, the war with ISIL left people uprooted and communities divided. Today, 4.8-million Iraqis have returned home, but 1.2-million people remain unable to do so.

The government and its international partners support the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) mainly through investments in infrastructure and services. Yet new research suggests that the protective effects of street-level social environment are important for individual well-being, even more so than safety or material circumstances.

Strengthening IMPACT for Iraqi communities

Cordaid provides clinical and community-based mental health and psycho-social support (MHPSS) services to conflict-affected populations in Iraq, as well as various other kinds of humanitarian aid. In 2020, the IMPACT project was launched to explore how physical, social and institutional factors impact Iraqis' individual mental health and well-being in the aftermath of conflict, as well as prospects for durable reintegration of IDPs and long-term peace.

As part of IMPACT, the Iraq-based research group Social Inquiry (SI) conducted a study in Baiji, a city of about 100 000 in Salah al-Din province.

Baiji was hard-hit by the war against ISIL; many people experienced trauma and have subsequently struggled with mental illness, and many displaced families remain unable to return.

Streets Tell Stories, the result of SI’s household survey and in-depth analysis, reveals how neighbourhood social environment, including social cohesion, institutional trust and political participation, matters for the mental health and psychosocial outcomes of residents.

“Positive social environments at the street-level act as buffers to protect individual psychosocial well-being from shocks in general,” says Sarmad Mubarak, Cordaid’s Programme Manager. “They moderate the effects of previous conflict exposure on people’s psychosocial well-being when they return.”

Shifting the focus of support

More broadly, the research findings point to ways Cordaid and other agencies might shift the focus of support on mental health and reintegration in places like Baiji.

“Investments in social cohesion, institutional trust, and participation are just as important to improving the mental health and well-being of residents as rebuilding infrastructure and livelihoods,” says Nadia Siddiqui, SI Co-Director. The former is likely to have significant positive effects on well-being and negative effects on conflict recurrence, which in turn make the latter more sustainable.

The report also proposes that interventions should prioritise those areas in which cohesion and institutional trust are lowest, as the relative gains are likely to be highest; and, as women tend to report worse mental health and psychosocial outcomes and men may under-report them, gender analysis and a gender-transformative must be central to programming at the intersection of well-being and social environment.

“Streets Tell Stories makes it clear that reintegration is not only a matter of rebuilding homes and providing jobs. It’s a political process,” says Khogir Wirya of SI, who contributed to the study. “That means, the negotiation of competing claims for recognition and redress.”

Working on social cohesion will not only improve people’s psychosocial well-being, it will also advance that process of collective claim-seeking that’s essential to peacebuilding.

In February and March, Streets Tell Stories will feature in an event co-hosted by Cordaid and SI to share recommendations with Iraqi and international policymakers; and later, in a global virtual dialogue fostering exchange between practitioners from the mental health and peacebuilding sectors.

For more information, please contact:

Nadia Siddiqui, Social Inquiry,
Sarmad Mubarak, Cordaid Iraq,