As an ex-aid worker, I have read the article on Aid workers and post-traumatic stress disorder with interest. I agree that being an aid worker is a stressful job and I can identify with the burnout and traumas you can experience. Here is my story to how I changed career from aid work to become a counsellor.You never really leave your work. You have to live and work with the same people and usually there are no social activities to distract you. You work under extreme pressure and often to tight deadlines.
Empathy with aid workers
I empathise with the comments that support offered is inadequate or ill-fitting or unsafe. Before my first assignment, I had less than half day training on stress management and none on self-care or mental well being. The majority of us aid workers are able to work with the stress and trauma. My first trauma was seeing a murdered body in Nigeria. It shook me and my female colleague up but we were able to share the experience and luckily it did not affect the way we worked. It is worth noting that our team leader at the time could not understand why we found it traumatic and made some comment about us being women. However, it is the unexpected traumatic experiences that can affect you and easily be brushed aside by the organisations.
I had a colleague who worked in Rwanda just after the mass Genocide. I don’t think any training equipped him for seeing mass dead bodies or being caught up in a conflict yet he had little support when he returned. I was with him one day here in the UK and a car backfired down the road from us. He instantly dived behind the car we were walking past. His instinct told him it was gun fire and he was back in Rwanda. He was shaking. It slowly dawned on me that he was suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and his mental health had been affected. The organisation he worked with at that time did not seem to want to listen to him. Luckily he did find the appropriate support. For me, it was the start of feeling there was something missing from the support offered to aid workers. Little did I realise this lack of support would eventually affect me and lead me to becoming a counsellor and being an advocate for mental health.
My first traumatic experience
I was a witness to a terrible road crash whilst in the first year of me being in Africa. People were killed and people were badly injured. I tried to help those who were injured but my simple first aid kit that I carried was not adequate. Help eventually arrived but I was left numb knowing that I could not help them. It haunted me throughout my assignment and I began to become nervous of the roads. I know there was nothing more I could have done but I was there to help people and I could not stop feeling that I had let them down. I also distinctly remember being laughed at by my leader for it affecting me so much.
Trauma catching up with me
I carried on with my work and continued other assignments but little did I know that this past trauma along with delayed grief would catch up with me. Whilst in Nigeria I was in a road accident. In an attempt to car-jack us, people laid nails on the road which resulted in our car getting two burst tyres and rolling. I took the brunt with the roof cutting my head open and knocking me out. I received primitive emergency treatment in Lagos and was medevacked back to this country. I slowly recovered from these injuries but mentally I was in trauma. All previous road traumas and grief just resurfaced. I went back to the NGO I was working with and asked for help. They did not listen or understand. I was informed that on the same day as my accident two other aid staff were kidnapped in another country and their plight was considered more important. I agreed and was grateful that I had not become a victim of kidnapping. However, I needed some support and there no-one was prepared to help me or help as my trauma was not related to the assignment.
Another agency I had become involved with on a voluntary basis suggested I tried counselling. I did and it did help me come to terms with it all and I was soon skipping my way to North Uganda. The counselling also helped me work through the stress of living with those who you work with and I found coping strategies to dealing with this. The only thing lacking from the counsellor was the understanding of being an aid worker. It is hard to describe. It is such an enjoyable rewarding job and a privilege to be working with different cultures. However, the pressures can be demanding and we often witness unimaginable situations that are difficult to be retold.
Throughout my assignments, I continued to witness lack of support for humanitarian workers and for the local people that by the time I was working in East Timor, I knew I wanted to stop being a water engineer and I wanted to be involved in mental health. A year later, I turned down my dream job in Tanzania to pursue a course in counselling.
One day when my children have grown up, I will take my experience of a counsellor back to overseas aid work. But for now, I just offer therapeutic support for humanitarian workers who are in the field or have returned. Skype and emails have opened the support I can offer and all counselling, I now offer remotely. All those individuals I have worked with have commented that it has helped them having a counsellor who has some idea of the environment they work in. I am also encouraged that agencies are taking mental well being of their staff more seriously and are beginning to offer the appropriate support.
This experience along with interest in traumatic bereavement has also led me down the path to provide support for bereaved people, especially those who grief is involved with terminal illness or road accidents. Along with providing support with dealing with your anger, shock and grief and helping you adapt to the change, if you wish, I can also visit the place where the accident occurred.
My aid work has helped shaped the counsellor I am today.