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Supporting the Mental Health of Aid Workers

October 10th marks World Mental Health Day. The theme of this year’s Mental Health Day is “Mental Health in an Unequal World”, highlighting the importance of global equality around mental health support.


This year’s theme offers an opportunity to not only advocate for those in difficult contexts where the potential for mental health struggles can be most severe, but also, as the WHO reminds us, empower people to focus on their own mental wellbeing.

For organizations working in difficult humanitarian and development contexts, this means not only greater attention to the mental health of those they are supporting, but also focusing on the mental health of individuals working for the organizations themselves. Aid workers frequently expose themselves to stressful situations and engage with individuals experiencing mental health challenges because of conflict and crisis.

These concerns are particularly acute for local staff who are typically located at the frontlines because of their greater contextual and linguistic familiarity. These staff members often live in the same mentally distressing situations as the communities they are supporting – and are also affected by the challenges and traumas of those they are supporting.

These landscapes are difficult to navigate. They require intentional care to mitigate the risks of burnout, vicarious trauma, moral injury – and many other potential consequences.

Below are five ways that organizations can support the mental health of their staff:

  • Establish policies: Having organizational protocols in place for staff struggling with mental health will increase the likelihood that mental health crises are responded to appropriately. Informing staff that such systems exist can also help create an atmosphere of safety and reassure staff that they can bring up problems or concerns with their management. It is also crucial that broader policies are put in place so that staff are not required to continually fight for their needs and entitlements; crisis situations involve myriad dynamics that are beyond the control of organizations, so providing order where possible is helpful.

  • Conduct in-house-assessments and/or therapy: New hires often have previous field experience. Understanding any pre-existing trauma or mental health struggles will enable the organization to better support new members of their team. Having in-house therapy is not always financially possible, but it can be an invaluable means of offering support.

  • Set initiatives: Celebrating awareness month, having group chats, or simply organizing lunches can help others to feel a sense of connection and belonging – as well as lift their moods. These initiatives constitute practical ways of supporting staff members' mental health.

  • Offer workshops: Conducting workshops on stress management, psychoeducation, or self-care can equip staff member with the necessary tools to practice taking care of themselves and identify when they need additional help.

  • Provide resources: Ensuring that staff have access to resources (therapy recommendations, list of support groups, financial help, etc.) can encourage them to seek support.

And here are five ways staff members can take care of their own mental health:

  • Set work boundaries: The pressures of project delivery amidst volatility can be demanding, but setting boundaries around your work time, how you allow people speak to you, what you expect from yourself, and the types of tasks (and how many) you take on can help mitigate negative impacts the job may have on your mental health.

  • Take time off: Use vacation days (and R&R if it’s provided). Ensure that when you are taking time off, you are truly off – and offline. Of course, it can be more difficult for local staff members to unplug from the work context, but taking smaller breaks can also help. Even two hours without checking your phone can beneficial.

  • Take care of your physical health: Physical health impacts your mental health. Although it can be difficult in some situations, try to exercise, get fresh air, and eat foods that nurture you. Mistreating your body also affects your mental health.

  • Spend time with people you love: Connecting with the people you love can help you switch your focus from work and feel a sense of meaning. Try to set regular times to see (or call/video chat) with family and friends.

  • Express your feelings: Regardless of whether you want to have coffee with a friend, book an online session with a therapist, or spend time journaling, it’s important to stay aware of how you are experiencing your work and the impact it’s having on you.

Sara Kuburic is a mental health columnist (USA Today) and writer (Random House) who focuses on trauma. Find her on Instagram: @millenial.therapist

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