No relief for relief workers: Humanitarian aid work raises risk of depression and anxiety

October 1, 2012

Humanitarian workers are at significant risk for mental health problems, both in the field and after returning home. The good news is that there are steps that they and their employers can take to mitigate this risk.

These findings, from a new study by scientists at the U.S. () and , including Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, are published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers surveyed 212 international humanitarian workers at 19 NGOs. Prior to deployment, 3.8% reported symptoms of anxiety and 10.4%, , broadly in line with prevalence of these disorders in the general population. Post-deployment, these rates jumped to 11.8% and 19.5%, respectively. Three to six months later, while there was some improvement in rates of anxiety—they fell to 7.8%—rates of depression were even higher at 20.1%.

Adjusting to home life is often difficult. "It is quite common for people returning from deployment to be overwhelmed by the comforts and choices available, but unable to discuss their with friends and family," says Alastair Ager, PhD, study co-author and Professor of Clinical Population & Family Health at the Mailman School.

Even tuning into one's own family can be a challenge. "I remember one highly capable humanitarian worker struggling because the time she spent with her children simply didn't give the same 'buzz' as leading emergency operations in the field," adds Dr. Ager. "She felt guilty in this, but her nervous system had become 'wired' for emergency settings."

It was continual exposure to a challenging work environment that increased risk for depression, not the experience of particular dangerous or threatening situations. Weak social support and a history of mental illness also raised risks. On the plus side, aid workers who felt highly motivated and autonomous reported less burnout and higher levels of life satisfaction, respectively.

The paper outlines several recommendations for NGOs: (1) screen candidates for a history of mental illness, alert them to the risks associated with humanitarian work, and provide psychological support during and after deployment; (2) provide a supportive work environment, manageable workload, and recognition; and (3) encourage and facilitate social support and peer networks.

The well-being of humanitarian workers can be overshadowed by the needs of the populations they serve. "It has been challenging to get mental health care for workers onto the agendas of agencies employing them—and even onto the radar of workers themselves," says Dr. Ager. "Depression, anxiety and burnout are too often taken as an appropriate response to the experience of widespread global injustice. We want them to know that the work they are doing is valuable and necessary and the situations difficult, but this doesn't mean they need to suffer." The study, he notes, provides "the first robust research evidence to establish the case that good staff care can make a real difference."

Dr. Ager and colleagues are also looking at the experience of those working as humanitarian workers in their own country. Results are due later this year.

Explore further: Experts want practical research to improve mental health of people experiencing humanitarian crises

Related Stories

Experts want practical research to improve mental health of people experiencing humanitarian crises

September 20, 2011
Experts want practical research to help improve mental health of people experiencing humanitarian crises

Workplace mental health disability leave recurs sooner than physical health leave, study shows

June 29, 2011
The recurrence of an employee's medical leave of absence from work tends to happen much sooner with a mental health leave than a physical one, a Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) study shows.

One-third of adult Americans with arthritis battle anxiety or depression

April 30, 2012
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one-third of U.S. adults with arthritis, 45 years and older, report having anxiety or depression. According to findings that appear today in ...

Burning calories at the gym avoids burnout at work

February 23, 2012
Obesity can be a dangerous risk to our physical health, but according to a Tel Aviv University researcher, avoiding the gym can also take a toll on our mental health, leading to depression and greater burnout rates at work.

Recommended for you

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

Schizophrenia disrupts the brain's entire communication system, researchers say

October 17, 2017
Some 40 years since CT scans first revealed abnormalities in the brains of schizophrenia patients, international scientists say the disorder is a systemic disruption to the brain's entire communication system.

Before assigning responsibility, our minds simulate alternative outcomes, study shows

October 17, 2017
How do people assign a cause to events they witness? Some philosophers have suggested that people determine responsibility for a particular outcome by imagining what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.