Today at 12.30pm the BBC World News Channel ran a piece talking about the mental health of aid workers. As my regular followers know, this is an area I am extremely passionate about and feel that wider discussion is needed on the subject to support humanitarian aid workers, and those working in the armed forces or as first responders.
We should be educating, not only individuals working in these roles to be better prepared to manage their own mental health and look out for those around them, but also to educate organisations so they can implement strategies to support and protect their staff/volunteers.
Unfortunately I wasn’t available for the interview on the programme but I was very pleased to provide them with interesting statistics to support the discussions. The statistics come from my own research for my book, Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers and are as follows:
Organisational support of relief workers deserves more systematic and thorough research. Ongoing exposure to trauma creates occupation-specific health needs. Despite known occupational hazards, anecdotal reports indicate that employers offer little social or psychological support in the field or after assignment. Explanations differ. Nongovernment organisations may have unrealistic expectations of workers’ adaptive capabilities, combined with limited resources. One survey of non-government organisations’ human resources staff found that psychological support of workers was considered less important than that of the local population. Furthermore, workers themselves may feel that their suffering is less relevant as well.
These findings have implications for humanitarian agency employee practice as well as research. Prior to service, workers—both expatriate and national staff—should be informed of the risk of potential exposure to trauma and related psychological effects. Organisations should develop and facilitate appropriate evidence-based support services in the field. Humanitarian agencies should offer culturally appropriate medical and psychological support for national staff during service, and they should put systems in place for ongoing support following agencies’ departure from the site and expatriates’ return home.
I also carried out a survey on the types of critical incidents we managed over three years (Dunkley, 2018)
There has been other research carried out which was used to support the findings in my book, including:
There is a significant body of evidence to demonstrate that workers directly exposed to traumatic events, including transportation disasters, physical attack, shootings, harassment and accidents, during the course of their work have an increased risk of developing PTSD, major depression, anxiety and/or drug dependency (Breslau, 1998).
A study that examined the mental health of national humanitarian aid workers in northern Uganda concluded that over 50 per cent of workers experienced five or more categories of traumatic events. Additionally, respondents reported symptom levels associated with high risk for depression (68 per cent), anxiety disorders (53 per cent) and PTSD (26 per cent), and between one-quarter and one-half of respondents reported symptom levels associated with burnout (Ager et al., 2012).
A recent longitudinal study indicated humanitarians are at increased risk for depression, anxiety and burnout during deployment and after returning; aid workers also had lower levels of life satisfaction compared with pre-deployment levels, even months after returning from the field (Cardozo et al., 2012).
Overall, as the demand for humanitarian relief work continues to grow, continual trauma exposure has important implications for occupational mental health. Research on psychological effects of relief work is limited and should look more broadly at trauma-related mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and alcohol use in addition to PTSD.
Having conducted a lot of research in this area and with many years of experience Fiona discusses how organisations can prepare their staff before deployment in her new book “Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers”. Get your copy today to find out more, available from Amazon.