Secret aid worker: your stories of mental health, PTSD and burnout

hulpverlenerStress, PTSD, and general mental wellbeing are serious challenges for aid workers. Here are some of the stories you’ve shared recently.

Shortly after publishing UN aid worker Brendan McDonald’s article on mental health in the aid sector we received many stories from our community. To begin exploring the issue in more depth, we are launching a survey for aid workers and development professionals.

If you have experienced mental health issues in the sector, or have something to say about how they are dealt with by NGOs, then please share your thoughts anonymously in the survey.

Here are some of the stories we’ve heard in the last few months. If you have any more you can email us confidentially (see details below).

I was told I was “clearly not committed” to the work

I was working as a director for a major NGO in the Syria crisis. I had been there nearly two years, following back-to-back long-term management roles in the highest level emergencies since 2010. By the time I submitted my resignation, I was so exhausted that I was going to bed every night at 7pm and still finding it difficult to get up in the morning.

During the course of my work I had been assaulted (twice), sexually harassed (so often that I lost count), injured and had my life threatened in the field on numerous occasions. I was working long days as we were grossly – and unnecessarily – understaffed. When I finally submitted my resignation, citing fear of severe burnout and the need to be with family, I was simply told I was “clearly not committed” to the work.

When I asked for a referral to a counselling service I was ignored, and then sent a bill (I had apparently been ‘overpaid’ for a week). I was swiftly replaced by someone with very little experience who wasn’t as vocal as I was. I’ve been proactive in getting all the support and time off (all self-funded) that I needed to get myself back on track, but I really fear for others in our industry who don’t have the luxury, confidence or experience to do the same.

Never work for an organisation without proper security measures

I was young, idealistic, naive and working in an active conflict zone for a small local NGO. My local NGO wasn’t big on security regulations: we had none. Literally zero.

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As one would expect, things went terribly wrong. There was a big attack on the city I was living in. Bombs were going off everywhere and all of the other expats were being evacuated. My NGO decided that we didn’t need to be evacuated. In fact, we were encouraged to continue moving around the city, exposing ourselves to great danger for no clear purpose.

I told my organisation that I didn’t feel safe and requested to be allowed to evacuate. This request was granted and I was safely removed from the city for a week. When I returned and walked back into the office, the front desk secretary handed me a copy of an email terminating my employment because, I paraphrase, ‘I wasn’t sufficiently committed to the cause and violated the organisation’s trust in me by evacuating’. The director of the NGO wouldn’t speak to me and I was given no recourse or opportunity to file an appeal. I had to beg to stay in the apartment I was living in at the time for another night. I had no work contract and I had to beg to get a plane ticket out of the country.

On top of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I had (but didn’t take care of) I was in a shambles for a long time. It was a horrible experience but it did teach me two things: never work for an organisation without proper security measures and always get things in writing.

My body gave up. It simply went on strike

After seven years of “field” posts, I finally landed what sounded like a great job in New York. But within weeks I realised that staying in Sudan might have been a wiser option. My working hours were insane and my work environment was toxic. Then after 12 years, five countries and a countless number of sleepless nights, my body gave up. It simply went on strike.

I had physical symptoms that kept me in bed and homebound for several months. The diagnosis fell like a bomb: I had a severe form of chronic fatigue syndrome caused by stress and burn-out and less than a 20% chance of recovery.

When I could no longer take care of myself, I travelled back to my parents in France in a wheelchair. For more than a year my wildest dreams included walking or standing for more than 20 minutes, having a restful sleep and breathing normally.

My organisation was polite and “electronically” supportive during the sick leave. But what made all the difference for me were the great people I met who supported me – many people outside my organisation but also within. When it was all too overwhelming and I wanted to give up, they were there to help me make the right decisions.

My stomach churned at the thought of taking on another assignment

I devoted my life and career to helping those in need all over the world. I lived the normal chaos aid workers know so well: of new places, new faces, new emergencies. After surviving natural disasters, being shot at, harassed, death-threats and diseases with no known names, my body finally gave in and my mind was not slow to follow. Returning to my home country, which had not been my home in many years, I struggled to find out what was wrong with me. Dumped by my agency to fend for myself, my foggy mind and I (a mind that could not remember conversations held just moments prior or how to use a parking meter) visited numerous specialists for answers.

Finally I was diagnosed with PTSD and malaria complications that had led to permanent injuries. I learned I would never bear a child. My life was shattered. My stomach churned at the thought of taking on another assignment in another emergency, but what else could I do? Being an aid worker was all I knew. Today, however, I am CEO of a communications agency in Sweden. It has been a long and difficult road of rehabilitation and finding my way to where I am today.

I walked into my office and physically collapsed

I was working in Haiti in 2010, during a really dark period post earthquake, when we had the cholera outbreak, and then a category four hurricane. I vividly remember the day of the hurricane, not least because two hours after it left Haitian waters I walked into my office and physically collapsed. My legs just would not hold me up.

My head of office sent me home. I was actually convinced I had cholera: I was throwing up and feeling really dizzy. To their initial credit, my organisation sent me on a week’s emergency leave. After that I came back to Haiti and carried on until the end of the year.

But that was just the start. Six months after I left I was experiencing random anger, anxiety, crying and exhaustion. I had no idea what was going on. A fellow aid worker friend of mine took one look at me and recommended her therapist. I was diagnosed with severe burnout. Given I was long gone from my contract, I was entitled to nothing at all. It took me more than a year to put myself back together.

Eighteen months later and back at work in New York it all came flooding back. I found myself unable to concentrate at work and randomly crying a lot. I went to see the staff counsellor, but all she was able to do was send me an incomprehensible list of US-based therapists. That was it. Most of my colleagues just said how lucky I’d been to go to the field.

I feel guilty about saying I need a long break

After nine months in Bentiu, South Sudan , it took me almost two months to realise how burnt out I was. I was lucky that I was around an amazing therapist, who saw straight away what I was going through. I’m not much of a talker so what I loved was that she gave me very concrete exercises to do myself.

People are starting to ask me about my next move, next mission and I do feel guilty about saying I need a long break. When I see people going from mission to mission it does make me feel like a “bad humanitarian” – somehow not strong enough or not having what it takes, apparently. I’m even reconsidering my whole career.

Share your thoughts on mental health and wellbeing in our survey here. All contributions are confidential.

The Guardian Global Development Professionals Network will be exploring the issue of mental health and wellbeing in the aid industry over the next few months. If you have a story to share, particularly if you have experience reporting incidents to your employer, email with ‘Wellbeing’ in the subject line.