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This special issue of ‘Intervention’ focuses on programmes for mental health and psychosocial support in three very different war affected contexts: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone and Syria. In this introduction to the issue, the editors present the three case examples and provide reflections on what we can learn from them. They argue that the rather narrow focus of initiatives in global mental health on rapidly scaling up essential psychiatric services needs to be complemented by attention to contextual factors, particularly in relation to (post) conflict settings. They stress the importance of 1) using a thorough contextual analysis that includes a wide range of perspectives of stakeholders at various levels; 2) using a broad public mental health approach that goes beyond treatment of people with mental disorders and focuses on prevention and resilience building; 3) giving attention to meaning making processes and elements, such as justice, reconciliation and reparation; and 4) conceptualising the process of evaluation as an iterative and multidimensional process that is most functional when designed in tandem with programme formation, and which follows and interacts with programme developments.