Sunday, 23 June 2013

JUST PUBLISHED: Posttraumatic Growth: Conflicts, Disasters, War, Genocide and Humanitarian Aid Workers

Increasingly in the 21st century, humanitarian work is carried out at the front line of modern global conflicts and disasters, which may include experiencing genocide.  The consequences of finding oneself caught in the swift and complex forces of genocide are phenomenologically beyond psychoanalytic conceptualization.  Psychological challenges for humanitarian aid workers who experience such events are therefore complex.  How do they make sense of that dual threat to self and those they seek to help, and how do they reintegrate with family and community on return home?

A Spanish nurse with starving children in Goma camp. Photograph: Angel Diaz/ EFE/Corbis
A recently published study (McCormack & Joseph, 2013) interviewed international aid personnel who had experienced the phenomenon of genocide.  What these participants had witnessed was beyond comprehension.  However, their distress was complicated on return by what they perceived as invalidating support from their deploying organisation, some family members and their workplace.  They felt betrayed, isolated and rejected.  They began to self blame and experienced feelings of shame.  For years they struggled with posttrauma distress, and for a period, lost their altruistic sense and empathy for others.  

Increasingly, the construct of posttraumatic growth is recognised as an extension to the theories of trauma.  The researchers were therefore interested in whether these participants might, over time, redefine their experiences positively and growthfully.   Though it took years, shame eventually gave way to self forgiveness.  Empathy re-emerged and they began the process of self-caring again.  Eventually their altruistic identities recalibrated but with a better sense of their limitations.  The study recognised the difficulty in reintegrating after such deployments and the importance of family and organisations in validating the work of humanitarian aid personnel.  Though it is difficult to find the words to express such horror, narratives need a voice and validating support post-mission is paramount for psychological and psychiatric wellbeing.


For more information about this work please see the following journal article:

McCormack, L., & Joseph, S. (2013). Psychological growth in humanitarian aid personnel: reintegrating with family and community following exposure to war and genocide Community, Work & Family, 16 (2), 147-163 DOI: 10.1080/13668803.2012.735478

or contact Dr Lynne McCormack at