The Cost of Compassion: A reflection on vicarious trauma among human rights defenders

By Shelby Ankrom

For those who dedicate their lives to serving the world’s most vulnerable, human rights workers are increasingly becoming some of the most at-risk groups for developing mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). While these extraordinary people are busy helping others, who helps them? Who is ensuring their well-being and mental health? For example, seeing and listening to stories of traumatic events such as torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, genocides, and crimes against humanity has the power to create lasting psychological damage. Even if someone has never personally experienced such events, mental health issues arising from simply being exposed to those who have, is enough to create vicarious trauma. This is a particular type of trauma that is acquired through the exposure of working with people who have experienced trauma, hearing their stories, and becoming witnesses to the pain and suffering that trauma survivors endure.

The Headington Institute, an organization providing mental health services to aid workers, describes empathy as one of the primary contributing factors of vicarious trauma. Human rights workers, tend to be compassionate and empathetic towards other human beings, particularly those in distress. When we open our hearts and minds to survivors of trauma, we also have the tendency to envision the described traumatic experience as if it had happened to ourselves, as a way to truly understand the survivor’s point of view. Yet, this method of emphasizing with others opens us to unintended, and potentially lasting psychological impacts. Dr. Laurie Pearlman of The Headington Institute recommends that when listening to survivor’s stores of trauma, it is better to understand how the particular person, or group of people, experienced the event, rather than imagining the event happening to you. More importantly, it is best to focus on human resiliency – how the individual survived the traumatic event through their strengths and resources. Remembering our roles, whether as professionals or volunteers, who are there to accompany and help others, rather than to take on their burden, can help mitigate some of the vicarious trauma acquired through the work.  

In his book, That the World May Know, James Dawes explores the burnout and mental health of United Nations workers interviewing refugees to determine if they can be granted asylum. Repeated exposure to stories of extreme distress from the refugees, these UN workers found it difficult to cope with the vicarious trauma that they experienced from listening to such experiences. Indications of vicarious trauma can include depression, anxiety, and high rates of job burnout, leading to even higher rates of turnover.

For the most part, concern about vicarious trauma and well-being has been directed toward humanitarian workers, particularly those working directly on the ground, typically in war-torn areas. As such, most of the literature surrounding mental health in this field is about these particular groups of workers.

More recently, the advent of social media and a continual stream of eye-witness content (also known as user-generated content) captured and posted by smartphones, has created new challenges for the range of people who may be affected by vicarious trauma. Repeated viewing of disturbing images and videos may be exposing human rights workers, journalists, and others to mental health stresses which can result in serious conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

study conducted by Eyewitness Media Hub found that the majority of employees who view disturbing images regularly in the workplace, have no organizational support, or even feel comfortable seeking out a manager for help. They noted that the human rights and humanitarian field has a “toughen up or get out” culture that makes it difficult for people to seek help or talk about the mental health issues that accompany this type of work. Furthermore, the study found that many managers in the aid sector do not take vicarious trauma seriously, or will flat out deny its existence. While those working in the field and on the frontlines of war-torn regions receive extensive training about how to deal with such situations, those working desk jobs in comfortable headquarters are often given no warnings about the kind of disturbing images they may view as part of their work. They are not provided any type of training on how to deal with it. Yet, it was found that desk-bound humanitarian and human rights workers tend to view on a repetitive basis more distressing and disturbing images than their on-the-ground counterparts. As most of these workers are not involved directly with survivors of trauma, they do not witness the human resilience needed to help heal and move forward.    

Currently, very few organizations offer any kind of mental health support, counselling, or benefits to help their employees cope with the stress and traumatic nature of their work.  High turnover rates and burnout tends to plague the humanitarian aid industry as a result. Organizations need to understand that the mental (and physical) health of their workers is synonymous with the quality of care they are able to provide their beneficiaries.

It is essential to recognize the common signs of vicarious trauma in order to take action to address them:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Cynicism or negativity
  • Loss of faith in humanity
  • Feeling disconnected or isolated
  • Social withdrawal
  • Feelings of grief, anxiety, or sadness
  • Headaches
  • Nightmares
  • Loss of empathy
  • Diminished sense of personal safety
  • Loss of sleep
  • Spiritual disruption

Some self-care practices that have been found to be helpful:

  • Creating a support group among colleagues at work
  • Seeking out professional counseling
  • Maintaining a healthy work-life balance
  • Regular exercise
  • Reevaluating and/or reducing workload
  • Doing things that are relaxing
  • Taking enough time off work
  • Read enjoyable books
  • Interacting people in our social networkers
  • Finding an appropriate balance of work, rest, and play.

Human rights activists and their organizations face additional challenges. It is important to recognize the difficult, and at times, life-threatening conditions under which many human rights activists conduct their work in countries around the world. Compounding the impact of vicarious trauma, many human rights activists are coping with their own trauma as well as ongoing attacks and harassment on themselves and their organizations. This condition is recognized as continuous traumatic stress (CTS) and requires significant attention.

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