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Humanitarian Work May Raise Risk of Anxiety, Depression

Researchers offer recommendations to improve mental health of aid workers

FRIDAY, Oct. 5, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Humanitarian aid workers are at increased risk for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, both while in the field and after they return home, researchers say.

The workers' employers, however, can take steps to reduce this risk, according to a new report.

For the study, the investigators surveyed more than 200 international humanitarian aid workers at 19 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and found that nearly 4 percent had symptoms of anxiety and more than 10 percent had symptoms of depression before they were deployed. Those rates are about the same as in the general population.

After deployment, nearly 12 percent of the aid workers had anxiety and about 19 percent had depression. Three to six months after arriving home, the rate of anxiety fell to less than 8 percent but the rate of depression increased to over 20 percent.

Readjusting to life at home can be difficult for aid workers, the study authors pointed out.

"It is quite common for people returning from deployment to be overwhelmed by the comforts and choices available, but unable to discuss their feelings with friends and family," study co-author Alastair Ager, a professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, in New York City, said in a university news release.

The researchers found that it wasn't the experience of being in dangerous or threatening situations that increased the risk for depression, but instead it was the continual exposure to a challenging work environment. In addition, having weak levels of social support and a history of mental illness also boosted the risks.

Aid workers who were highly motivated and self-governing, however, reported less burnout and higher levels of life satisfaction, respectively.

The researchers recommend that NGOs should: screen candidates for history of mental illness; fully inform them of the risks related to humanitarian work; offer mental health support during and after deployment; provide a supportive work environment, manageable workload and recognition; and encourage and assist with social support and peer networks.

The study was published online recently in the journal PLoS One.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about depression.

SOURCE: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, news release, Oct. 1, 2012
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