Crisis of anxiety among aid workers

According to a 2013 study commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 47 percent of its staff members who were surveyed indicated having had sleep problems in the previous month. And 57 percent had recently experienced symptoms consistent with depression. Rates of clinical depression among aid workers are double those of American adults. One cites “adult trauma exposure” as a main cause.

Yet mental health support for the estimated 250,000 humanitarian workers in the trenches is woefully lacking. The 2013 report recommends that the organization “provide and promote the option for staff to utilize external mental health therapists” and “disseminate information on what is covered by insurance for outside therapeutic support.” It also recommends more than 20 other measures to help aid workers.

While the management formally approved all but one of these recommendations, nearly two years later many of them remain unfulfilled. One recommendation that has been implemented — that aid workers going to the hardest places, to the Afghanistans, Iraqs and Syrias, will be contacted by an in-house counselor before and after their mission for an optional mental health check-in — is not happening systematically.

Yet the United Nations refugee agency is better than most, according to Kaz de Jong, head of staff care for the Netherlands division of Doctors Without Borders. His is one of the rare aid organizations known for doing a good job on this front. “At least they’re doing something,” he says, referring to the 2013 report. “Many do nothing at all.”

He’s right. A 2009 survey of 20 aid organizations found that many staff-care programs fail to adhere to basic standards. Little has improved since. What progress has been made often remains at the headquarter level, far from the shelling and violent stories that aid workers regularly face on the front lines.

[New York Times]

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