Photo: Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock

The Forgotten Victim in Humanitarian Work

by David D'Angelo Apr 7, 2017

I hugged my friend as I rode on the back of his motorcycle at 1AM in the morning. The panic attack I was having made it hard to breathe. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred a month earlier was finally taking its toll on me, and we were rushing to the nearest hospital in Kathmandu.

When we do humanitarian work we focus on the person who doesn’t have health care access or the girl who can’t afford to go to school. We focus on the family that still uses kerosene for light or the mother who needs capital to grow her micro-enterprise. It makes sense. But we are forgetting about someone.

We are forgetting about the humanitarian.The humanitarian works amid conditions of war, disaster, and extreme poverty, too. These extremes bend and twist our mental stability. We break. We suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I know I still do.

We spend countless months hearing gunshots in Somalia. We are shaken by the bombs dropped on hospitals in Aleppo. We lose our house after the earthquake in Nepal.

According to a United States High Commissioner for Refugees 2013 study, half of its employees indicated having sleeping problems in the previous month. And 57% had symptoms consistent with depression. Rates of clinical depression among aid workers are double what they are for American adults, exposure to trauma being one of the leading causes. And 45% of those surveyed in the 2013 study believed their lives were once in danger or that they would be injured at one point in their career.

After the Nepal earthquake I wasn’t right. I started getting more emotional, more tired, more reckless. But I didn’t want to recognize that there was a problem. I started waking up in the middle of the night, thinking that an earthquake was occurring. I would rush outside to seek safety. My heart would be pounding. I would experience shortness of breath. But an earthquake wasn’t happening. I was paranoid and scared. This was the beginning of my struggle.

For most social entrepreneurs and aid workers, these are the unfortunate consequences of our commitment to doing good. We neglect feelings of mental instability that point to the fact that something is wrong. We need help. But we continue moving forward. We convince ourselves that these feelings are normal. And then we burn out. We get anxiety. We start having incidents of PTSD.

And then when we seek help we struggle to find it. Organizations often don’t have the mental health resources to address our challenges, because addressing mental health for aid workers remains an afterthought. Our trauma often pales in comparison to the trauma faced by the people we serve. We don’t want to project weakness to our management, for fear that we could be asked to take leave. We work at a small social enterprise that doesn’t have enough resources to pay its staff. So how do we expect them to be able to help us deal with trauma?

Organizations such as the Achillies Initiative are making a positive mark in the space. They have designed a training program to improve the mental resilience of people working in conflict and disaster zones. This is a step in the right direction. But one initiative is not enough. It demands stepping back and trying to design a systematic change in how we think about and respond to mental health issues. It demands a cultural shift that starts to prioritize the health of aid workers and social entrepreneurs.

There are thousands of aid workers dedicating their careers to improving lives in tough and dangerous places. The world needs to invest more into ensuring these workers remain mentally resilient, so they can do their best work. The world needs to remember that they too experience trauma. Because if our social entrepreneurs and aid workers aren’t mentally stable, then how can we contribute to building a better world?

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