Aid workers, assuming survivors' agony, at risk of 'vicarious trauma'

Wed Sep 30, 2015 7:10pm EDT
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By Joseph D'Urso

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Cat Carter interviewed young victims of torture on the Syria-Jordan border for aid agency Save the Children, she spent long days with her mind filled with one horrifying story after another.

She got so wrapped up in her work that she found it difficult to switch off at the end of a grueling day.

"I knew that bad things happened, but I had never seen torture scars on nine-year-olds (before)," she said.

Carter, Save the Children's head of humanitarian information and communications, was developing vicarious trauma, a mental health condition which few aid workers are aware of.

"I became almost fixated on the Syria crisis, and nothing else really mattered. At the time, one of my dearest friends was getting married and I couldn't really get involved. Even the basic decisions like what to have for dinner really threw me."

It is well known that people risk developing long term mental health problems if they are tortured, sexually abused or see someone killed in front of them.

However those who simply spend lots of time talking to trauma survivors can also suffer serious harm.

Aid workers are particularly vulnerable to vicarious trauma, whose symptoms include difficulty managing emotions, making decisions and maintaining relationships, according to the Headington Institute, a California based charity which helps aid workers.   Continued...