Research summary: Humanitarian work and trauma
To date, only a handful of published research studies have explored the experiences and reactions of humanitarian workers around the world (see (Cardozo & Salama, 2002; Holtz et al., 2002; Eriksson et al., 2001; Eriksson et al., 2003). All of these studies focused on the experiences of field staff working in frontline “hot spots”, such as Kosovo during the late 1990’s. Their findings provide an interesting glimpse into some humanitarian workers’ experiences and reactions in this type of relief setting. However, one cannot assume that the results of these studies provide an accurate and complete picture of humanitarian workers’ experiences in many different roles and situations around the world.
Humanitarian workers’ experiences
Collectively, the results of the studies cited above suggest the following about humanitarian workers' experiences of potentially traumatic events:
- Most humanitarian workers in the field, whether expatriate or national, will experience at least one seriously frightening or disturbing incident during the course of their work.
- At least 25% of humanitarian workers in a complex humanitarian emergency (CHE) can expect to undergo a potentially life-threatening experience.
- More than 90% of humanitarian workers surveyed had witnessed or heard about something traumatic happening to someone they knew personally during their current assignment (Eriksson et al., 2003).
- National staff members for whom “the field” is “home” are at an even higher risk of experiencing traumatic events than expatriate staff.
- The most commonly experienced traumatic events included being threatened with serious physical harm or death, being within range of gunfire and/or being shot at or bombed, being in situations where many people are dying, having the responsibility of handling dead bodies, being robbed and/or attacked, and being involved in road accidents.
Humanitarian workers’ reactions
Collectively, the results of the studies cited above suggest the following about humanitarian workers’ stress and trauma-related reactions:
- Approximately 10% of humanitarian workers will have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, most commonly depression, anxiety and/or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), prior to their current assignment.
- Estimates of the prevalence of diagnosable PTSD among humanitarian workers at any point in time range from 2%-13%. Most estimates fall between 5%-10%.
- Between 15%-25% of humanitarian workers experience significant symptoms of anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD at any given point in time.
- At least 15% of humanitarian workers appear to increase their use of alcohol and/or other potentially harmful substances to hazardous levels during the course of a humanitarian assignment.
For personal reflection…
- In what ways do these research findings about humanitarian workers’ experiences of potentially traumatic events reflect your own experiences and observations?
- In what ways do these research findings about humanitarian workers’ stress and trauma-related reactions, anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse reflect your own experiences and observations?
Next: What is trauma?