Website helps humanitarian workers deal with trauma

Humanitarian workers - like these in Mozambique - can often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Keystone

Humanitarian workers are well known for their role in helping countries stricken by conflict. But only recently has attention started to focus on the psychological traumas which such workers also suffer. Now they can turn to a new Geneva-based website.

This content was published on October 7, 2000 minutes

The website (address below) was created by the Centre for Humanitarian Psychology, which was founded in 1998 by the psychotherapist, Claire Colliard.

She turned her attention to the problems experienced by humanitarian workers after being asked by the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to set up a unit to offer psychological support for its staff.

"I was sent out into the field a few times and it was then that I realised what problems these people might have," Colliard told swissinfo.

One of the most common psychological problems is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which often manifests itself as flashbacks: "These are very frightening, because you can't prevent or control them. People who get them often feel they are going crazy," said Colliard.

She says many others suffer from depression, character disorders, emotional dysfunction, nausea, drug or alcohol abuse or psychosomatic problems like skin rashes and back problems.

"These problems may seem very serious, but people are often frightened to talk about it, and if they don't acknowledge it, it gets worse," she said, adding that some also feel guilt or shame that they have managed to get out safely and return to their relatively comfortable lives in the west. This can often be compounded if a local colleague has been killed.

The Centre for Humanitarian Psychology works with the Red Cross, the International Migration Office, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and non-governmental organisations like Médecins du Monde, Care and Oxfam.

Many other international organisations and NGOs have been slow to recognise the problem. Last year, the centre conducted a survey of 84 NGOs throughout Europe and only 10 per cent were actively doing something for their personnel.

"The response from individuals has been quite big. Now we're trying to address the NGOs and their human resource departments, and that's where the difficulty begins," explained Colliard.

"Many NGOs simply don't have the budget for a full-time psychologist. It's expensive to send someone out into the field for debriefing," she adds.

However, she acknowledges that a growing number of relief organisations do recognise the problem and are devising programmes to help their staff. Colliard says many have been forced to change their views because of the changing nature of conflicts and humanitarian action.

"Emergency operations are now on a much bigger scale, and the work in the field has changed to reflect that. Often humanitarian personnel are sent to the field unprepared. And often there's no time - or no will - to support them while they're there," she says.

The participants in a conflict are nowadays less likely to observe the rules of war, as the conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda chillingly showed, and humanitarian workers are more likely to be targeted.

"It's been getting worse over the past three or four years, and it's likely to keep on getting worse," said Colliard.

"Humanitarian work used to be a largely non-violent type of action. Now it's getting closer to being a soldier. We have to support the soldiers of peace."

This helps to explain why the Centre for Humanitarian Psychology's new website could be such a boon for aid workers who feel isolated and troubled by what they have witnessed. The website includes a forum which is designed to be a meeting place where humanitarian aid workers in the field, or recently returned from overseas, can share their experiences.

Alternatively, they can send an e-mail detailing their problems, and the team of psychologists at the centre in Geneva can give immediate help.

One recent message from someone called Francine said: "I'm afraid of cracking up. I have already attempted suicide once and I don't want to resume my work. I can't take it any more and I need help."

Colliard says her team of four psychologists and 20 volunteers are ready to deal with this kind of cry for help. But she feels it is more effective if humanitarian workers are briefed about what to expect before they begin their missions.

"Our main concept is psychological support, and the best way to achieve that is through prevention and information," said Colliard "We try to keep away from anything therapeutic."

She adds that it is equally important to debrief workers as soon as possible after their tour of duty, because in 80 per cent of cases this will prevent the person entering the PTSD phase.

The message is slowly being acknowledged by the humanitarian organizations, largely due to the work of the Centre for Humanitarian Psychology.

by Roy Probert

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