Mental health matters:

Despite the fact that more than a quarter of us will experience mental health issues at some point in our lives, it is very much a taboo topic in society as a whole and in the humanitarian sector.

By the very nature of their work, humanitarian aid workers are exposed to challenging circumstances; if they are not able to talk about their experiences and receive adequate support, aid workers are likely to develop mental health problems in the long run.

Yet, there is insufficient training and support for mental health concerns in the humanitarian sector.

Thus, more needs to be done to acknowledge and better support aid workers so that mental health related concerns do not merely slip under the radar.

Issues within the humanitarian sector

One of the major obstacles concerns is the prevailing culture of silence, guilt, stigma and shame.

The Antares Foundation found that 30% of humanitarian aid workers report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While this figure may not seem high to some, this figure does not include others who struggle on in silence.

A 2013 study by UNHCR supports this. According to this study, 47% of staff reported experiencing difficulty sleeping, while 57% highlighted that they felt “sadness, unhappiness, or emptiness”.

What is more, many believe that if they report their issues it will harm their career and reputation.

Particularly for national workers, this pressure can be insurmountable.

Not only do national workers not have the privilege of being able to leave after a six-month deployment, they have the added dimension of cultural expectations.

Mental may not be seen as culturally acceptable and thus can add a challenging layer to this problem. If left ‘untreated’, these feelings of fear, shame, emptiness and general unhappiness will remain and could possibly fester, leading to increased mental health problems in the future.

Mental Health

What can we do to change things?

Without a doubt, positive mental health is of paramount importance. It is therefore vital to recognise the resilience of all humanitarian workers and create an environment in which all are able to talk more freely about their mental health concerns.

Organisations have an increasing responsibility to support and encourage greater wellbeing amongst their employees.

A culture where staff members are encouraged to reflect on wellbeing is incredible empowering.

What is more, it is easy to promote staff and volunteer wellbeing.

Introducing regular team meetings can help to identify the signs and symptoms of stress early on. While ‘prevention’ is key, it is also vital to have ‘check-ins’ with employees.

Follow-ups and debriefs are a great way to gage the mental state of individuals.

Moreover, active listening is vital. It is key that individuals have space to express their feelings in a safe environment.

HAD recognises the importance of good health and wellbeing.

It is vital to ensure that aid workers are effective and capacity-built.

With this said, HAD has introduced a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course to support and aid humanitarian field workers.

Here at HAD, we recognise the importance of noting signs of mental health issues and providing a supportive environment.

Supporting one another is important in the humanitarian sector.

That is why we believe that our MHFA course is invaluable. This two-day course will equip participants with the necessary skills and knowledge to recognise the signs and symptoms associated with common mental health issues and respond confidently and effectively when engaging with anyone experiencing those issues. Humanitarian aid workers should be equipped to provide “first line” help and support to reduce the trauma experienced by someone with mental health issue and should be contributing to challenging the stigma and discrimination experienced by those with mental health issues.

Hence, the call to action is clear. Organisations need to listen and take better responsibility for the mental health of their employees and volunteers.

It’s time for the humanitarian community to do more for its people, and challenge the facade that ‘everything is ok’.

Learn the vital skills and competencies needed to understand and implement effective strategies to support your fellow humanitarians with our MHFA.

Mental health

It is within the collective’s interests to support one another and ensure that needs are being met.

If you are interested in learning more about the ways HAD is supporting mental health, click here 

If humanitarian aid workers don’t have support, how can they be expected to support anyone else?

Written by Charlotte Davies 

Marketing and Communications Intern


Who are the humanitarians? Centre for Humanitarian Leadership

Psychological Support and Wellbeing for Aid Workers

World Humanitarian Day: Experts speak out about mental health – Devex

World Humanitarian Day: it’s time to break the silence on aid worker mental health, London International Development Centre

Humanitarian agencies need to stop failing their staff on mental health, The Guardian

Rising mental health issues among humanitarian workers, France 24