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Depression among Humanitarian Aid Workers

Depression among Humanitarian Aid Workers

Anxiety, Depression, Burnout, mental illness, life satisfaction, aid workers, humanitarian

The role of aid workers has long been discussed, but not so much the effects of humanitarian aid on the workers themselves, at least from an academic point of view. New research published in PLOS ONE tries to fill the gap, raising a series of questions regarding distress, anxiety, depression and burnout before and after humanitarian aid work.

The researchers, led by Barbara Lopes Cardozo from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surveyed 212 aid workers at 19 NGOs, at pre-deployment, immediately after deployment and 3 to 6 months post-deployment. The results showed that rates of anxiety and depression increased significantly (anxiety from 3.8% to 11.8% and then down to 7.8%; depression from 10.4% to 19.5% to 20.1%).

The findings led to a series of conclusions regarding ‘what humanitarian organizations can do to diminish the risk for experiencing mental illness or burnout during deployment,’ as written in the study. The recommendations are the following:

  • Screen candidates for a history of mental illness and family risk factors pre-deployment and provide expatriate employees psychological support during deployment and after the assignment is completed. (…).
  • Staff should be informed that a history of mental illness and family risk factors may create increased risk for psychological distress during deployment.
  • Provide the best possible living accommodations, workspace, and reliable transportation.
  • Ensure, when possible, a reasonable workload, adequate management, and recognition for achievements.
  • Encourage involvement in social support and peer networks.
  • Institute liberal telephone and Internet use policies, paid by the organization will help increase social support networks of deployed staff.

The researchers, however, suspect that the NGOs that accepted to be included in the study are those with better conditions, as many others refused to take part in it.

Source: EurekAlert!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lopes Cardozo B, Gotway Crawford C, Eriksson C, Zhu J, Sabin M, Ager A, Foy D, Snider L, Scholte W, Kaiser R, Olff M, Rijnen B, & Simon W (2012). Psychological Distress, Depression, Anxiety, and Burnout among International Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Longitudinal Study. PloS one, 7 (9) PMID: 22984592

Jaime Menchén

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  • Paul Whiteley
    October 2, 2012, 16:24

    I wonder if you had seen the work of Julia Rucklidge and colleagues based in New Zealand and their report on the use of micronutrients for earthquake survivors potentially modifying stress and anxiety responses?


    There’s still a way to go with this suggestion but it follows a pattern of other similar work on a role for vitamins and minerals altering stress responses:


    I’m not suggesting that this is the only factor but packing a supply of additional vits and minerals might be a useful suggestion too.

    • Jaime Menchén@Paul Whiteley
      October 4, 2012, 12:56

      No, I haven’t seen it, but I’ll have a look at it now. Thanks for your contribution.

  • Theresa DeCosty
    October 3, 2012, 05:16

    Humanitarian aid is supposed to be a self-fulfilling job, rather it can be one that causes stress and anxiety. There is increasing concern on the effect humanitarian aid as on the workers. If a person has any history of mental illness, they may need psychological support during deployment and after the job is complete. The level of anxiety and depression they experience only increases over time. The government should be praising the humanitarian aid and supporting them in ways that can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. The aid workers should have decent living accommodations and the workload should be within reason so they are not overworked. Stress can have many effects on your body in a negative way and without proper treatment it can only get worse. Therefore, as a resolution, these recommendations should be put into action to help support those who support us.

    • Jaime Menchén@Theresa DeCosty
      October 4, 2012, 12:59

      I totally agree. There should be more focus on the aid workers so their task and experience are actually useful.

  • Morgan
    October 3, 2012, 06:13

    I definitely can see how workers in this field can become anxious or stress. Being exposed to situations you may not be able to control, and to be surrounded by those circumstances can really put a toll on someone. I agree steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of depression.I really enjoyed this article.

  • Kristen Brown
    October 3, 2012, 06:45

    Could it be possible that the reason they experience depression and burn out is from being around people who are living unhappy lives and feel upset about how there are so many people who are need help and only a small portion willing to help. It could where down on their positive views of human nature and slowly trigger depression. Is there a study that can be directed to that idea??

    • Jaime Menchén@Kristen Brown
      October 4, 2012, 13:18

      That’s just one of the reasons why aid workers may experience depression and burnout after deployment. I found this quote from Alastair Ager, co-author of the study, the most enlightening: “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. She felt guilty in this, but her nervous system had become ‘wired’ for emergency settings.”

      I don’t know any study that explores the idea you are interested in, but I recommended you to have a look at this paper’s discussion. Fortunately, the paper is open access (therefore, free); it’s available here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3440316/