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Breaking the silence: promoting action on aid worker mental health

Time (GMT +01) 13:30 15:00


Christina Bennett @cr_bennett - Head, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI


Christine Williamson @dutyofcareint - Director, Duty of Care International

Cecilie Dinesen @ceciliedinesen - Advisor, Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (via videolink)

Michael Bociurkiw @mikeybbq - Global Affairs Analyst and Former Humanitarian Aid Worker

Jaz O'Hara @worldwide_tribe - Founder, The Worldwide Tribe


Humanitarian aid workers are routinely exposed to traumatic events linked to the cause of mental health issues including depression, burnout and anxiety. But increasingly, work stress including extremely heavy workloads, long hours and limited time for self-care are being highlighted as major causes. Among volunteers, mental health issues can be even higher (Dineson, 2018). Often from affected communities, volunteers experience the same loss and grief as those they are working to support but without the same training, support or structure as professional workers.

At the global level, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of ensuring the well-being and safety of humanitarian workers and volunteers. However, too often the appropriate support and care systems are not in place, especially for national or local staff. A recent study found that only 20% of aid workers surveyed felt adequate psychosocial support was being offered (Dunkley, 2018). The prevailing culture of silence, feelings of guilt and perceived stigma around mental health, leads many to continue working without seeking treatment. To reduce stress, burnout and to promote the well-being of workers and volunteers, simple and cost-effective initiatives can be put in place before, during and after deployment.

To mark World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, ODI convenes an expert panel to discuss breaking the silence and promoting action on mental health affecting aid workers and volunteers. Specifically, the panel discuss:

  • What are the main sources of stress for aid workers in crisis contexts? Are they preventable?
  • How do aid workers themselves cope with stress?
  • What progress has been made on supporting aid worker mental health?
  • Who is at the forefront of providing stellar support for mental health? What can others do to match this level of care?


Christina Bennett is the Head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI. She is an international aid policy analyst with extensive experience working for the United Nations and several international policy institutes on humanitarian, conflict, and post-conflict peacebuilding policy.

Christine Williamson founded Duty of Care International in 2016. Her expertise comes from 20 years of work in highly challenging environments. Christine has supported and led the HR function in many humanitarian responses across Africa and Asia.  She has published articles, guides and tools, and has undertaken extensive research on people management and duty of care issues. Christine provides specialist advice and practical support to organisations on their people management and duty of care responsibilities.  

Cecilie Dinesen coordinates the RCRC research network on MHPSS and implements other research and knowledge management initiatives at the Psychosocial Support Centre. Cecilie has more than five years of experience in the humanitarian field with psychosocial support, protection of vulnerable groups and emergency response.

Michael Bociurkiw is a writer, global affairs analyst and former humanitarian aid worker. Michael is a frequent commentator on BBC World, CNN and Al Jazeera. He has previously worked as an emergency spokesperson and communications expert with numerous relief organisations including UNICEF, WHO and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in over 15 countries affected by war and disaster. Michael has written previously on the issue of humanitarian aid workers and mental health. 

Jaz O'Hara is the founder of The Worldwide Tribe, an organisation and online community raising awareness about the refugee crisis, as well as supporting those caught up in it. The Worldwide Tribe has run many projects on the ground, from installing wifi in camps in France and Greece, running art projects in Za'atari camp in Jordan, supporting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and coordinating food, clothing and shelter.

Dineson, C. 2018. ‘Mental health and psychosocial support: who cares for the volunteers?’. Humanitarian Exchange. No. 72. Dunkley, F. 2018. ‘Psychosocial support for humanitarian aid workers. A roadmap of trauma and critical incident care’. London/New York: Routledge
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