Caring For Carers

An exploration of mental health within the humanitarian field

“… there was an elephant in the room that no one was openly talking about: most people working in these fields are not doing okay”

Photo by Yosi Prihantoro on Unsplash

It all started with a conversation I had with a friend who had spent some time in Lesvos, where many refugees disembark looking for a better life. He had volunteered there for a summer, and he opened up to me about how rough things were for him after he went home to Germany. He felt at odds with the people around him, because their problems seemed so futile compared to the horrors he had witnessed in Greece. Unbearable images were stuck on repeat inside his mind, yet he didn’t feel entitled to complain. He knew how privileged he was to be able to leave that place whenever he wanted, and that left him with a sense of gut-wrenching guilt.

I could only relate to what he was saying. Despite my limited experience with these things, I had myself been living in a state of complete dissociation from the people around me for years. I did my best to act like I was fine, but I was really trapped (and still am, most of the time) in a dark pit of despair. I tried to forget the completely different realities I had come to know, because they were so incompatible with the world I came from that it felt like there was no way to hold space for both of them without going insane.

I also knew that we weren’t isolated cases. In my years travelling around the world, I have met many wonderful people working in international solidarity or as humanitarian workers, whether as punctual volunteers or seasoned employees. As I got to know some of them better, I quickly noticed there was an elephant in the room that no one was openly talking about: most people working in these fields are not doing okay. Many pretend they are, while developing chronic illnesses and turning to substances to numb the pain and be able to sleep at night.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

When trauma is processed by the body adequately, it can take a few days or weeks to get through a particularly stressful event. But when it is not, it can take decades, if not a lifetime of suffering. Add on top of the that the enormous pressure that some employers put on their staff to meet objectives in the midst of already incredible stressful conditions, and you get unbelievably high numbers of burnout, depression, PTSD and other similar mental health conditions.

Anyone deserves to ask for help without fearing to lose their job, or to be seen as weak.

The following documentary presents an overview of these issues and their potential solutions, through my own quest to better understand what had happened to me and the people I saw struggling around me. It is a small contribution to encourage measures to improve the conditions of the people who sacrifice so much of themselves to alleviate the suffering of others, often at the cost of their own happiness and peace. And although I am one of those who like to see humanitarian workers as our modern world’s heroes, it is also my intention to serve as a reminder that they are also only human. Anyone deserves to ask for help without fearing to lose their job, or to be seen as weak.

For this project to come alive, I have had the immense privilege to interview several people who have worked or are currently working in the humanitarian field. I wish to thank them warmly for their courage in opening up about these difficult topics.

This documentary was part of the final dissertation for my MA in International Journalism at Cardiff University.




Writer, Journalist, Filmmaker

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Sophie Zermatten

Sophie Zermatten

Writer, Journalist, Filmmaker

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