Preserving mental health while working in humanitarian aid and development.
Working in the humanitarian and social sector can require navigating unique dynamics. Often, we want to embody the values our NGO carries out in order to uphold our integrity, but so many aspects of our lives seem to be in tension with one another. Our relative wealth, security and opportunity can feel at odds with the realities of poverty and injustice we are working to alleviate. This can lead to a lot of guilt or fatigue that can press heavily on our mental health, especially when left unchecked.
- Defining it — just as the name suggests, it’s guilt related to acknowledgment of our privilege, benefiting from systematic injustices rooted in reifying history. It especially comes up when thinking of or interacting with marginalized or comparatively lower-income beneficiaries.
I remember this “privilege guilt” hitting me heavily at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn’t feel like I had permission to express or even feel how much I was struggling with feeling isolated and at a loss because I “had it better” due to a privilege I did not earn. At least I had a home to be locked down in. I had running water and immediate access to sanitation and hygiene. I had a fridge stocked full of food. I had my own room, and though the house felt smaller than it’d ever been, I still had pockets of my own space. When I read about kids living in overcrowded slums and lacking access to basic necessities, I felt guilty and entitled and privileged. So I buried my feelings of stress and struggle, its very existence posing a moral question to me. But the feelings persisted and grew and demanded to be heard.
What can we do about it?
It’s important to clarify that it is good to acknowledge our own privilege and backgrounds and how, though we all work hard, our different access to opportunities leads us to very different realities. This is especially important in sectors such as social work, humanitarian aid or international development because rather than framing it as simply aiding those who are helplessly sitting around, we understand that communities are already actively and creatively working with the resources they have. What we are doing is simply opening more pathways to opportunities for holistic health and living.
For rational thinkers, it can also be helpful to acknowledge that objectively, there is a difference in suffering between ourselves and the people we serve. It is comparatively worse to be going through a pandemic in extreme poverty than it is to be going through a pandemic in my semi-suburban home. But the comparison doesn’t diminish or invalidate the existence of my own pain and struggle. It's a fallacy to think these experiences are a dichotomy— in actuality, I can hold two realities to be true at once: that yes, someone does have it worse than I do. And that I am also struggling.
- Defining it — it’s the cost and exhaustion from caring for others’ physical and emotional needs in your line of work. Compassion means “to suffer with”. An important part of empathy is feeling what other people feel. But when you work with a large number of people who all have misfortunes and needs and unfair cards, this can become overwhelming.
- The symptoms vary — it can range from feeling irritated, helpless, overwhelmed, to feeling numb and apathetic, like a computer shutting down. It can also lead to reduced awareness of your own needs.
What can we do about it?
First, we try to understand what the issue is. Compassion fatigue can come from overly estimating our responsibility to fix a broken situation. In the line of humanitarian employment, work doesn’t seem like just work. Whether you’re constructing a bridge, testing car airbags or delivering basic necessities to a rural village, the difference signing off early makes can be literally life or death. We think of the mission at hand and the souls on the balancing scales, and it seems impossible to justify taking time for ourselves. How can we work in a sustainable way with such a weight on our shoulders when we are, at the end of the day, only human vessels delivering goods?
My specialist program in international development taught me the importance of a critical lens and remaining a “ hopeful skeptic”. In other words, how do we remain analytical and sharp-minded to get as close as possible to a sustainable and positive impact on communities as a foreign entity, yet not lose hope completely on finding this narrow path?
Furthermore, how do we stay compassionate, yet not completely emotionally wrecked by our work and tasks at hand? I have a friend in social work who I frequently discuss these topics with, and we have both pondered if we’re “wrong” or not built for our work because of how open our hearts are and how often we weep over the stories we hear. At times, it can feel paralyzing.
In a crucial moment in my work, my friend shared with me that when your heart is open and tender, God will give you the grace to be able to deal with it. Rather than hardening yourself like the world would suggest, we can remain soft and know that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3)
I don’t have all the answers, but that reminded me of the sufficiency of God’s grace to carry me through work and preserve my mental health. Here are a number of other truths that I try to remind myself:
- The Gospel narrative is crucial. God is the Author and Perfector of His Kingdom come — we are simply coming alongside the work He is already doing. This levels the field of “donor” and “beneficiary” to mutual believers and brothers and sisters. It also relieves excessive burden and responsibility on us to “fix” everything and ultimately gives glory to the One who can intervene in powerful ways.
- Share these burdens within community — with your Christian colleagues especially. Pray together. Lift them up to the One who can answer.
- We are made to be finite, and that is a good thing. God is infinite. Our limitations are a key part of keeping us humble and reminding us that we are not the final answer to the solution. This also keeps saviour complexes at bay!
- Remember we are in a marathon, not a sprint. Work in a way that can sustain you holistically. Learn to listen to your body’s signals for help when it sends you increased levels of irritability, numbness or feelings of being paralyzed and overwhelmed.
With the contextualization of what being human means and who God is, we can look at our work in the context of the bigger picture. We remember, “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:5–7)
Monica Cheng is a Content Specialist at Compassion Canada. She delights in reading, baking, nature walks and the little things in life. She enjoys spending quality time in serious conversations and silly laughs with her family, friends and local church.
Photography by Monica Cheng.