Newsletter. Human Rights defenders’s mental health and wellbeing

Newsletter No. 6 December 2021 Human Rights defenders mental health and wellbeing

15.12 2021

Overview of content:
Secondary or vicarious traumatization
Tools to take care of yourself
Further reading and resources
Download the MHHRI GBV manual
Upcoming events


Dear colleagues,

Talking to survivors of trauma also affects human rights defenders (HRD) either working as helpers, listening, reporting or supporting others. Some HRDs are also survivors themselves, and might have experienced torture, threats, and prolonged stress. For all helpers and human rights defenders, empathy is an essential aspect of good help. But it is also a source of secondary traumatic stress (STS). How are helpers to manage their own stress? Early recognition and awareness are crucial to efforts to prevent burnout.

Secondary or vicarious traumatization

Human rights defenders are under a lot of pressure. They need to both push themselves and take care of themselves, which can be difficult to balance. Being exposed vicariously to traumatic events, for example by listening to catastrophic testimonies, may generate some of the same trauma reactions that would occur if they were involved in a serious incident. Some warning signals include hyper arousal, avoidance or distancing, and experiencing intrusive images and nightmares after hearing or witnessing the traumatic suffering of survivors. Even a single story can create intrusive images.
This can lead to HRDs struggling to manage their emotions, have relationships problems, find decision-making difficult, have physical problems (aches and pains, illnesses), feel hopeless, think their life has no meaning, or experience a collapse in self-esteem.

Tools to take care of yourself

It is therefore important to develop strategies to cope with situations that might cause secondary traumatic stress. As a helper, you can ask yourself what helps you to take your mind off your work or your thoughts. How can you rest your body as well as your mind? Does an activity inspire you or put you in a better mood? If you find it useful, you can also use the grounding techniques that you teach survivors.

Additionally, when seeing warning signals or just being ahead, to prevent emotional fatigue and burnout, leaders at the workplace should regularly check in with their leaders one on one and allow an open dialogue about the working situation. They could set up a list of what demands the human rights defender has at work. Then, they could work actively towards reducing demands and find out parts of the job that can be removed or changed to decrease the workload or pressure. Investing in HRD’s wellbeing will have positive ripple effects, because people who are doing well psychologically, tend to perform well at work.

When this is said, we would not be working within this field if it did not also have some positive aspect. According to researcher David Gangsei, as with vicarious traumatisation, awareness is a key factor in vicarious resilience. Vicarious resilience recognizes the value of observing resilience in our trauma-survivors. This is not only noticing positive dimensions of our work, although that is important. It’s how bearing witness to survivors’ resilience can change how we are, not just as helpers and HRD, but as persons in our own lives, dealing with our own sorrows and challenges. When we know such an experience exists, we are more likely to recognize and benefit from it.

On MHHRI’s website, you can find tools to take care of yourself as a human rights defender. They include grounding exercises, which is a therapeutic approach for handling dissociation or flashbacks, and reducing the symptoms of anxiety and panic.

Further readings and resources

Wellbeing, Risk, and Human Rights Practice

2017University of York

Human rights defenders at risk often find it difficult to talk about their mental and emotional wellbeing, even when they are concerned about it. Cultures of human rights practice tend to emphasise self-sacrifice, heroism, and martyrdom. These norms ...

Resilience as Resistance: Mental health and well-being ...

Open Global Rights

What risks advocates face and how they might be mitigated? The mental health and well-being of advocates has often been neglected by human rights organizations, funders, and advocates themselves. Recently, however, activists and mental health profess...

Mental Health Functioning in the Human Rights Field: Fi...

2015Amy Joscelyne, Sarah Knuckey, Margaret L. Satterthwaite, Richard A. Bryant, Meng Li, Meng Qian, Adam D. Brown

Human rights advocates play a critical role in promoting respect for human rights worldwide, and engage in a broad range of strategies, including documentation of rights violations, monitoring, press work and report-writing, advocacy, and litigation....


Human Rights Defenders
Mental Health & Human Rights Info (2021)
Here you can find information about definitions and terms, human rights declarations, resolutions and guidelines on the protection of human rights defenders. There is information about women human rights defenders, about mental health and well-being of human rights defenders, and about reprisals. Lastly, we provide an overview of relevant organisations and sites.

Helping the helper
Mental Health & Human Rights Info (2021)
For mental health workers, empathy is an essential aspect of good help. This is also a source for compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatic stress. Early recognition and awareness are crucial to being resilient to these symptoms.

All manuals can be downloaded from the MHHRI website

There are three different manuals, which respectively address working with women, with boys and men, and with children who have experienced sexual violence.

The manuals are translated into several languages. The page numbers in each manual remain the same across languages. This allows survivors and helpers to work from copies in their preferred language and read the same content on the same pages. It also makes it easier to teach participants when participants and trainers work in more than one language. The manuals include a toolbox. Survivors can use it individually to regulate their own emotions through grounding exercises or in collaboration with a helper. Helpers can also use grounding exercises to take care of themselves as helpers.

We appreciate feedback and comments 

Welcome to our new subscribers, we hope you will find our content useful. The Mental Health and Human Rights Info Newsletter is a newsletter with the aim to provide insight on a certain subject across the scope of our work; human rights violations in war and conflict areas and mental health. Our intention is to deliver a newsletter as a short “lecture” where you can find relevant information regarding a specific subject with a mental health perspective. You will receive our newsletter 5 times a year.

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We are wishing you a peaceful season with justice and human rights for all.

Sincerely yours,Elisabeth Langdal, Sara Skilbred, Mónica Orjuela, the MHHRI teamMental Health and Human Rights