Aid Workers, Too, Suffering Post-Traumatic Stress

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 3, 2003

One night in 1994, John Fawcett was watching television with his family at home in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, where he was working for the humanitarian aid agency World Vision.

Suddenly, a gun battle broke out on the street outside. The crackle of gunfire was common. Cambodia was a lawless and desperate place at the time. Fawcett simply turned up the volume on the television to drown out the noise.

Stepping out of his house the next morning, he encountered the gruesome aftermath of the previous night's shoot-out. A gang of car thieves had been ambushed and killed by a military police patrol. Their bodies were laid out on the side of the road, left there as a warning to other criminals.

A few years later, Fawcett was back in his native New Zealand, reviewing a fundraising movie the agency was putting together. The clip showed a group of children with sticks, pretending to be soldiers.

"Suddenly I found myself standing up, sweat breaking out all over, desperately casting around the room for the danger I was certain was there," Fawcett recalled. "I had to get out of the room, take some deep breaths, and think things through."

His reaction is hardly unusual. Many aid workers who experience traumatic events have difficulty coping with them later on. Some find themselves reliving stressful episodes weeks, months, or—as in Fawcett's case—years later.

Most often associated with soldiers, post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological reaction, occurring after a highly stressing event, that is usually characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and jittery nerves. These symptoms are now known to be common among aid workers.

Exactly how common no one knows. While numerous studies have been conducted on the psychological effects of war on military personnel, far less research is available about aid workers. Experts warn that many aid organizations are not providing adequate psychological support to their staff.

"Until recently, people had not even recognized that this is a problem," said Barbara Lopes-Cardozo, a psychiatrist with the international emergency and refugee health department at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Lopes-Cardozo is now planning a CDC study that will track 300 aid workers over several years to see how they cope psychologically with their work. It's the first-ever longitudinal study of the little-understood problem.

Death Threats

Aid work is dangerous business. Toiling in trouble spots from Angola to Afghanistan, aid workers from agencies like the International Red Cross, CARE, and Doctors Without Borders sometimes risk their own lives to help victims of everything from natural disasters to war.

Continued on Next Page >>


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