The mental health of humanitarian workers

New research published in the journal PLoS ONE suggests that humanitarian workers could be at increased risk of mental health problems as a result of their efforts in the field. The study found these individuals may suffer from depression and anxiety both during their work and when they return home.

Investigators at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alongside collaborators including the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, noted there are ways to mitigate this risk, however.

It was demonstrated that symptoms of anxiety among humanitarian workers rose from 3.8 per cent to 11.8 per cent following deployment, while those for depression increased from 10.4 per cent to 19.5 per cent.

Alastair Ager, Professor of Clinical Population and Family Health at the Mailman School, noted: "It is quite common for people returning from deployment to be overwhelmed by the comforts and choices available, but unable to discuss their feelings with friends and family."

However, Society Fellow Professor David Alexander from the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research at Robert Gordon University expresses some scepticism about these findings:

"This is certainly not a new finding; the - usually temporary - adverse effects of humanitarian work have been recognised for years, and there are ways to mitigate these. It would be counter-productive to seek to eradicate all anxiety, because it relates to the sense of excitement such workers experience. If it were that bad, one would expect them to find some other work. Also, in dangerous settings, a level of anxiety is part of Nature’s adaptive way of keeping us on our toes and being alert to risk.

"Having myself been in several conflict zones, I have not seen many military combatants, however experienced, suffering from deep and pervasive relaxation.  In my experience, the level of 'depression' tends to rise in these workers more often on being demobbed as life appears to be less exciting and may appear to lack the personal meaning and purpose which their humanitarian work generated. On the other hand, those of an empathic disposition will feel down when they come face to face with the awful experiences of those who are subject to some major calamity. Comes with the job, does it not?

I agree that, if the levels of anxiety and depression compromise function in an operational setting, then that is an important managerial  and health issue."