2018 World Mental Health Day: The Wellbeing Cluster – embodying CHS commitments, delivering locally

10 October 2018
Hitendra Solanki

by Hitendra Solanki

Mindfulness and Wellbeing Adviser for Action Against Hunger UK and the Start Network

In this blog, celebrating the World Mental Health Day, Hiten reports on the developments around the Wellbeing Cluster in the Philippines and on its role in the response to Typhoon Mangkhut. He argues that the cluster model can be a driver of change, especially for Commitment 8 of the CHS.

As we celebrate World Mental Health Day 2018, The Wellbeing Cluster – only just launched in the Philippines – is now operational, and beginning to take its first steps to address the psychosocial needs of those affected by disasters and emergencies.

Following Typhoon Mangkhut on September 15th, the impact of the storm created a major landslide on September 20th in the City of Naga, Cebu. Within 24 hours, Ms Mikee Pepito, Wellbeing Cluster Coordinator, based in the Central Visayas Network of NGOs (CENVISNET) had coordinated with the Department of Health, and was on the ground to conduct a needs assessment with the Provincial Health Office lead. Within 48 Hours, the Cebu Wellbeing Cluster activated its first response on the 22nd September.

The initial response consisted of psychological first aid, provided to the 30 Local Government Unit staff, the first responders. These post-emergency services to attend the workers, and locally affected communities, are being provided by Wellbeing Cluster members, the University of San Carlos’ Psychology Department, and the University of Bohol, in the form of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD).

Reflecting on the World Mental Health Day, the response of the Wellbeing Cluster is an important step into normalising psychosocial support for our personnel, and ensuring taboo and stigma around mental health are broken down and eradicated, through dialogue and in creating an environment and responses that facilitate openness and acceptance around mental health.

In this way the Wellbeing Cluster, is offered as a model, that not only provides support for us as humanitarians, affected by the experiences of humanitarian crises, but also an opportunity for us to facilitate and elevate awareness and understanding around mental health issues within communities. This local contextual approach, and shared response, may have a powerful effect in dismantling stigma, and in promoting wider community mental wellbeing and resilience.

The Cebu Wellbeing Cluster is part of a wider and more ambitious project, previously as part of the Mindfulness & Wellbeing project of the Start Network’s Transforming Surge Capacity programme, and now led by Action Against Hunger UK, to replicate the cluster model across the region, and potentially globally, as part of the humanitarian architecture.

The early signs of this transformative shift are promising, and indeed, UN OCHA in the Philippines now finally include Wellbeing in their ‘Who, What and Where’ analyses. The Wellbeing Cluster is now also recognised as a key component in emergency responses in the Philippines, and recognised by the Department of Health, and indeed OCHA. This is a powerful shift for the humanitarian sector, and indeed, a significant signpost as we celebrate World Mental Health Day.

Embodying key principles and commitments

At the heart of this approach, as we develop the wellbeing cluster model and replicate clusters in other areas, is a need to embody key principles that guide the process of change and ensure the integrity of the approach, and the consistency and quality of the approach as a major driver.

The CHS Alliance, back in 2015, were a key driver in the push to address mental health, and supported the mindfulness and wellbeing project, and the need to emphasise prevention to promote resilience and wellbeing. The focus on mindfulness as a way to nurture the key competency of ‘self-awareness’, as indicated in the Core Humanitarian Competency Framework (CHCF), was a key consideration in terms of its influence on decision-making and leadership skills also, and is part of the project’s ongoing research.

The driving principles for this approach, and embodied within the principles of the Wellbeing Cluster, are the CHS Commitments themselves. These were not simple alignments for window dressing, but were core considerations in the development of the cluster model principles.

Specifically, Commitment 8, states, ‘staff are supported to do their job effectively, and are treated fairly and equitably’, and this was a major driver. A survey conducted as part of the Mindfulness & Wellbeing project in 2016, indicated that significant gaps existed in how staff are supported and treated regarding mental health issues, and that the wellbeing needs were inadequate within the sector. A such, the cluster model was developed under the understanding that processes and mechanism for supporting our staff, specifically around mental health needs, should also be embodied. Given the often-limited resources and impractical factors for many small and local NGOs, the cluster model, with its emphasis on collaboration, and sharing of resources for all, means that, in principle, Commitment 8 may be possible for all agencies, from the largest international agencies, to the smallest local agency, via a shared and collaborative approach through the cluster model.

Indeed, this collaborative approach means that Commitment 3, which states, ‘humanitarian response strengthens local capacities’, as well as Commitment 7, where ‘humanitarian actors continuously learn and improve’, can be embodied and take root, not just organisationally, but sectorally, as networks and constellations of cluster members strengthen local capacities, and learnings can be shared and incorporated across communities.

Following the 50 evaluations that make up the aggregated CHS verification data, via the self-assessments, external audits, and peer review, the sample of agencies that participated, provide an indication of how the sector is pushing closer to fulfilling the requirements for these commitments. This is a positive global shift. The data shows, that for the average scores by commitments, Commitment 8, especially, is 2.82, and Commitment 3 at 2.59, and Commitment 7 is 2.51. These are all edging closer to the magic number of 3 on the verification data indicator scale, which indicates a threshold for fulfilment of the commitments within agencies.

These link the importance of having quality standards as drivers of quality within the sector, and as the example of the Wellbeing Cluster model shows, embodying key principles, and sharing these values, has a collective effect on the consciousness of individuals and the interventions and endeavours organisationally.

The Wellbeing Cluster’s success thus far, also mirrors some of the key findings of The Humanitarian Accountability Report 2018.

A key finding states that, ‘change occurs through small-scale, concrete actions that are continuously revised and adapted, rather than top-down, large-scale action plans’, and is supported by a complementary finding, which recognised that, ‘It is people who drive change. Change occurs when people’s motivations and capacities are understood and considered’

Locally, the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. and the Central Visayas Network of NGOs manage and coordinate the Wellbeing Cluster in Cebu, and supported by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy Philippines, and indeed, it is the motivation and spirited leadership of these local NGOs that has allowed this change to initialise through such ‘concrete’ and ‘small-scale’ locally contextualised and collaborative programming. In essence, the ‘vector of change’ the report goes on to highlight.


As we mark World Mental Health Day, and the success of the Wellbeing Cluster, it is hoped that the embodiment of such key qualities, principles, and indeed the CHS commitments, will not only help continue to move us towards a greater understanding and approach to mental health, but that in embodying and sharing these collectively, we will all benefit with greater resilience, and with increased wellbeing.

Happy World Mental Health Day!