Avanzando el Futuro: Mental Health Care in Colombia

Avanzando el Futuro: Mental Health Care in Colombia

Brillith, a mother of three, lives in Valledupar, Colombia, a city of nearly half a million people near the border between Colombia and Venezuela.

Valledupar, like other areas in the border region, is a host community for migrant and refugee populations from Venezuela. At least 2.9 million Venezuelans live in Colombia, of more than 7.7 million who live outside their country. Many Colombians who live in Valledupar have also been displaced, following armed conflict within the country.

For Brillith, life has had its stressors. She told us that she used to feel “without encouragement,” alluding to past challenges.

That was then. Now, she runs her own business as a dressmaker, with a growing client base. 

What changed? Through Avanzando el Futuro, a program led by Mercy Corps, and in partnership with Glasswing and other local organizations, she received seed capital to build her business—and she found a safe space where she could practice self-care. With those resources and her own skills and talents, she built a better future for herself and her family.

Avanzando el Futuro

Avanzando el Futuro provides refugees, migrants, and host communities with access to health, protection, psychosocial, and legal services, as well as livelihood and financial inclusion opportunities. Through Glasswing, the program offers access to mental health services and training to support the management of stress and emotions through group spaces. 

During the first year of Glasswing’s involvement, between November 2022 and August 2023, 572 people participated in the training spaces led by Glasswing. We strengthened the capacities of implementing partners and migrant and host populations, providing self-care tools, emotional containment, and strategies for coping with trauma, from a comprehensive non-clinical approach.

The program has been implemented for four years as led by Mercy Corps and is present in three departments of Colombia: Antioquia, Bolívar, and Cesar. Glasswing is present in the capital cities of those departments: Medellín, Cartagena, and Valledupar, respectively.

Andrea Moreno Posada, Glasswing’s Health Projects Coordinator for Colombia, explained the purpose of the program in Mercy Corps’ newsletter:

“Our goal is to provide as many people and organizations as possible with the ability to deliver mental health interventions and services, or to achieve broader programming goals that enable positive and sustainable change. That’s why everything we do is based on a deep belief in dignity, empowerment and human potential. Glasswing catalyzes the power of communities to create a safer, more prosperous future for all of us.” 

Trainings in Emotional Well-Being and Comprehensive Trauma Care

Avanzando el Futuro features two types of training:

  • Training in Emotional Well-Being for migrant populations and host communities
  • Training in Comprehensive Trauma Care for implementing partners
Commemoration of World Mental Health Day led by Glasswing, with implementing partners and participants of Avanzando El Futuro. Valledupar, October 10, 2023

Both trainings provide tools for coping with trauma, developing strategies for self-regulation, and strengthening emotional support. The second training also enables capacity building, allowing personnel and self-care facilitators to adopt and sustain the program’s methodologies.

In her letter, Andrea explained, “We are sure that by generating ecosystems of informed care, and democratizing access to mental health services, through education programs on self-care and psychological support, we will reduce the negative effects of trauma.”

Other components of Avanzando el Futuro provide further comprehensive support. Mercy Corps gives guidance and support on savings and entrepreneurship issues, as well as economic incentives for companies that formally employ the migrant population, so they can guarantee contributions to social security and/or endowment.

Providing trauma-informed care for migrant populations and host communities

As a member of the host community of Valledupar, Brillith has not experienced the stressors of international migration, but many who participate in Avanzando el Futuro have. 

Those stressors can have a drastic impact on mental health. In a 2023 World Health Organization report on the mental health of refugees and migrants, Dr. Ailan Li, the Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage at WHO, wrote:

“Migration represents a major life transition that may benefit mental health and well-being among some migrant and refugee groups, either immediately or over a longer period. Yet, for other groups, migration may adversely affect mental health – refugees and migrants may be at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, psychosis and suicide. They may be excluded from society because of stigma and discrimination, and denied their human rights. They may also be subject to physical and sexual abuse. In addition, they may face significant barriers that hamper the availability, accessibility, acceptability and affordability of health services for these populations.”

One policy consideration to benefit the mental health of refugees and migrants, according to the WHO report, pertains to “strengthen[ing] community capacity for and access to mental health care by providing information about services, providing psychoeducation, mobilizing communities to support themselves, proactively engaging with migrant groups and providing community-based referral pathways.”

That’s exactly what Avanzando el Futuro does. It mobilizes communities to build strength and self-support, empowering members with the confidence, resilience, optimism, and mental health resources they need to thrive.

That applies to host communities as much as the migrants who arrive to them. As Andrea explained, “If it had not been for this project, they [members of the host communities] would probably never have received training in emotions or self-care. Those topics are new to them.” 

Emotional Well-Being Training certification. Marinilla, Antioquia, June 22, 2023

She spoke about the impact on local people like Brillith, who learned self-regulation during Emotional Well-Being Training and expressed how useful that experience was for her, stating that the trainings “were very emotional spaces.”

Andrea also mentioned another aspect to highlight: community collaboration and acceptance. Xenophobia toward newcomers is present at times, generating mistrust and prejudice against the migrant population. However, help is also available. She described a group of women in the city of Medellín who came together to provide support to migrant women during their arrival, guiding them in their adaptation process and helping them rebuild their lives.

Advancing the future, one day at a time

As Brillith told us, she understands that “there are good days and bad days.” For us, a recent day of openness and inspiration—a good day—was January 13, World Day to Commemorate the Fight Against Depression. On that day, the Glasswing team for Avanzando el Futuro in Colombia shared the Guide to Talking About Depression. You can access it here (in Spanish):

The guide includes information such as what depression can look like, how to talk to others about depression, and how to support someone who is facing depression. 

Luis Pineda, Glasswing’s Comprehensive Well-Being Specialist for Avanzando el Futuro in Valledupar, at an Emotional Well-Being Training. July 12, 2023

Luis Pineda, Glasswing’s Comprehensive Well-Being Specialist for Avanzando el Futuro in Valledupar, discussed the guide and the importance of openness about mental health in an article for the Mercy Corps newsletter:

“Historically, as a society, we have held great prejudices about mental health since we can neither see it nor understand it.” 

But, he continued, “With empathy and listening, we can save many lives. It is important to point out that we have taken significant steps; talking openly about the subject represents a great step forward to feel better and can also be of great help to other people who, with sensitivity, dare to talk about that which is invisible, that we cannot see or touch.”

He concluded by emphasizing the need for acceptance and care:

“Let us remember that each and every one of us, at some point, can be the lighthouse that illuminates someone’s ship in distress.”

We would like to thank our dedicated implementing partners for the Avanzando el Futuro project: Mercy Corps, Profamilia, Corporación Opción Legal, and Corporación Caribe Afirmativo.