Guest Blog: Aid worker well-being

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RedR Member Lynne McCormack outlines the psychological risks faced by humanitarians and underlines the importance of mental well-being.

Humanitarians deployed to high-risk environments are at risk of multiple threats.

Ethical challenges, physical assaults, illness in the field, and psychological confrontation, can each or collectively undermine their efforts at supporting vulnerable groups. Additionally, hazy divisions between aid personnel and various military groups particularly if opponents in civil conflicts misinterpret their presence as political actors, can put lives at risk with an increasing number of humanitarian personnel kidnapped or killed over the last two decades.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of being caught in the midst of fragile, imploding states, inter-territorial disputes, and international politics is becoming the bread and butter of international humanitarian aid personnel. Such catastrophic events can leave many feeling abandoned by the international community, and psychologically paralysed while perpetrator and victim roles bloodily unravel before them. Irrespective of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court ruling the murder of humanitarian personnel a war crime. Not surprisingly, very few cases have been prosecuted at national level.  

Despite these risks, many individual humanitarians have a driving force to engage in aid work.

At the intrapersonal level, core attributes such as altruism, an individual’s ability to adopt the perspective of another person in need, can be a powerful motivator. An altruistic act can momentarily boost feelings of pleasure and self-worth prompting further acts of altruism. People high in altruism have been described as helpful, generous and prosocial, and are more willing to accept personal disadvantages for the sake of others. Thus in helping others, feelings of well-being and sense of achievement may fuel motivation to help again in a non-reciprocal manner.  

However, such attributes can be disrupted by the confronting nature of the aid world environment. Thus maintaining psychological well-being can be a challenge for many individual humanitarians as they struggle to make sense of any horrific and traumatic event. Altruistic identities can be eroded leaving some feeling shamed and guilty for not having done more. Ironically, seeking help through their organisation is often complicated by a fear they will be stigmatised and not considered for further deployment.

When individual humanitarians risk their lives in the care of others, they should expect:

  • that their employing organisation will provide psychological preparedness prior to deployment;
  • predictable evacuation procedures when environments become threatening; and,
  • good psychosocial follow-up post-deployment. Importantly, organisational support pre-deployment should prioritise psychosocial training that prepares individuals for unexpected responses to horrific events and validates their need for early and appropriate care to avoid the development of long-term mental health issues including anxiety, depression and post-trauma stress.

Furthermore, open dialogue concerning psychological risk in the field needs to exist between organisations and their personnel to mitigate against shame, blame and avoidance of help seeking. Perhaps the most important cross-sector practice for ensuring best humanitarian wellbeing, retention, and psychological safety for staff and those they serve is receiving validation for effort.

Three key steps can provide that validation post-deployment:

  • validating efforts during deployment;
  • assessing individual distress from mission experiences immediately on return and at three-month follow-up e.g. PostAID/Q (see below);
  • providing reintegration support with pre-deployment life networks.

Lynne McCormack is a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is also a RedR Member. Find out more about her research.

A Short Guide to Self-Care, from Bird and RedR UK