Abstract Delivery of effective mental health and psychosocial support programs requires knowledge of existing health systems and socio-cultural context. To respond rapidly to humanitarian emergencies, international organizations often seek to design programs according to international guidelines and mobilize external human resources to manage and deliver programs. Familiarizing international humanitarian practitioners with local culture and contextualizing programs is essential to minimize risk of harm, maximize benefit, and optimize efficient use of resources. Timely literature reviews on traditional health practices, cultural beliefs and attitudes toward mental health and illness, local health care systems and previous experiences with humanitarian interventions can provide international practitioners with crucial background information to improve their capacity to work efficiently and with maximum benefit. In this paper, we draw on experience implementing desk review guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency (2012) in four diverse humanitarian crises (earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal; forced displacement among Syrians and Congolese). We discuss critical parameters for the design and implementation of desk reviews, and discuss current challenges and future directions to improve mental health care and psychosocial support in humanitarian emergencies.