Why the mental health of aid workers is vital to Covid recovery

A Red Cross volunteer working on Covid-19 issues speaking with a woman in August in Bantul, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Credit: Indonesian Red Cross.

The mental health support needs of humanitarian workers have increased during the pandemic.

As much of the world braces for another wave of Covid-19 infections, the pandemic’s toll on mental health is increasingly evident.

Increased social isolation, heightened anxiety over income and job losses, and bereavement is worsening mental health across the globe. A recent survey by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in seven countries found that over half of adults believe their mental health has been negatively affected by Covid-19.

This coincides with decreased availability of mental health services; the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) figures reveal that the pandemic has interrupted or suspended mental health support services in 93 per cent of countries. Reduced services mean more people rely on humanitarian workers, especially in countries where pre-existing pressures such as conflict, natural disasters and economic crises have left many people in an already fragile mental state.

The Red Cross data also highlighted public support for the mental health needs of humanitarian workers. Nearly three in four of those surveyed thought frontline personnel, including health workers and first responders, have more need for mental health support than the average person.

In September, 59 per cent of surveyed aid workers in 100 countries reported higher levels of stress, according to a review published by Devex.

“For many months now [our staff and volunteers] have been on the front line of this pandemic, often working long hours and being invariably exposed to stressful events when responding to the needs of people affected by disasters,” says Dr Bhanu Pratap, senior officer for care in the community at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

“Like everyone else, they are also contending with the impacts of Covid-19 in their personal lives and on their family and friends. It is absolutely vital we prioritise their mental health and wellbeing to avoid burnout and long-term mental health implications. ”

Carla Uriarte, an organisational psychologist with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva, explains that the ICRC has experienced a sharp increase in demand for mental health services from its staff since the pandemic began.

Increased stress due to personal health concerns, anxiety over being unable to do their jobs due to Covid-19 restrictions, and the loneliness of isolation have all resulted in deteriorating mental health among humanitarian workers. “Like everybody else, [ICRC staff and volunteers] were concerned about their own health and their loved ones, but also about how to…be able to respond to the needs of the population,” she explains.

Stigmatisation of staff and volunteers as virus spreaders has also been a major cause of stress during the pandemic, Uriarte adds, with many humanitarian workers facing hostility.

Jamila Abdirahman Omar, a psychosocial officer with humanitarian agency Alight, based in Mogadishu, Somalia, noticed that stigma was causing increased anxiety among her colleagues, especially those working in the health sector. She was also worried for colleagues who, like her, were isolated away from home due to the pandemic, without a support network of family and friends.

“With the outbreak of the Covid-19 our health staff were challenged, and they were not ready for this,” explains Omar. “No one was ever ready for the effects and the mental fatigue the coronavirus would have on everyone,” she adds.

Her expertise allowed her to recognise these growing issues straight away, and she set up a support programme, including a 24-hour hotline, Zoom training sessions, and WhatsApp groups.

“Knowing that no one had the information about stress, about burnout, about anxiety within the staff, I started giving them training on psychological first aid,” says Omar.

Before the pandemic, the IFRC and ICRC already had a system of psychosocial and mental health support for staff and volunteers, Urirate says, meaning they could quickly step up services to meet escalating needs. ICRC provides online support sessions, peer-to-peer workshops, and mental health materials to continue supporting staff as the crisis continues, she says.

“They are exposed to exactly the same circumstances as the people they are there to support,” explains Uriarte, “and if we do not take care of our mental health, it is very difficult for us to be there for others.”

The IFRC and ICRC are also calling on national authorities to prioritise mental health services to support the increasing numbers of people in need of mental health care, and in turn reduce the pressure on humanitarian agencies.

“There is no health without mental health,” says Milena Osario, head of the mental health and psychosocial team for the ICRC, also based in Geneva. “If people don't take this seriously, we are going to be living the consequences of this in the long term.”

“The more emotionally strong you are, the better chance you're going to have to rebuild communities ... so we should really prioritise mental health and psychosocial support,” she adds.