Aid work is not always as glamorous as it is portrayed. While it offers immense cross-cultural exposure and satisfies the deep intrigue that many of us have for global exploration and our desire to "save the world", it also provides direct insight into the realities of our world - many of which are far, far from glamorous.
Seeing death, destruction, extreme poverty, war, hunger, starvation, displacement, and the consequences of corruption and dirty (international, not just national!) politics can leave a person pretty damn depressed, angry, frustrated, discouraged, and jaded. But, not just that, some people cannot erase the sights of bunkers and AK47s, the sounds of explosions and women wailing, the smells of decaying flesh, the touch of homeless children begging for food scraps, or the taste of meals shared by refugees who otherwise cannot even provide for themselves. They are tormented by these sensations day and night. For those who have experienced firsthand trauma, the reaction is sensory overload.
Transitioning back and forth between countries facing such extreme challenges and other countries and cultures, where the average citizen's most persistent, pressing worry is what clothes to wear out the next night, or what exotic country to visit on vacation, can render these already overwhelming thoughts uncontrollable and deeply saddening. Seeing and experiencing abundance can trigger feelings of guilt. For those who may have grown up in challenging circumstances, the feeling of guilt is often no different.
It is important to understand the potential consequences of living in such contexts and often being unable to change the circumstances for beneficiaries, and the critical need to prioritize personal life and well-being in order to remain healthy and whole.
Depression and anxiety are known to affect many aid workers, particularly those who have repeated exposure to volatile, hardship locations. Substance abuse is frequently used to reduce, mask or numb the emotions that surface, including depression and anxiety, from seeing such extreme realities.
Research also suggests that suicide may be higher amongst those individuals who have experienced trauma at some point in their lives. It is, therefore critical for office managers, colleagues, partners, family, friends and others to recognize the warning signs of suicidal tendencies or thoughts.
It's important that adequate support networks (office managers, colleagues, partners, friends, family, etc.) are in place and that appropriate treatment (therapy, medical care, etc.) is provided in order to help those affected feel supported and less alone. Ensure that all staff members are educated on the risks and signs of depression and suicide. Provide information sessions and provide related materials (brochures, posters, etc.). Help counteract related stigma. And, take the steps necessary to ensure that there are staff members in each office who are trained to respond to such issues, should they arise.