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

Newsletter No 6 December 2021
Human Rights defenders´s mental health and wellbeing
Overview of content:
Secondary or vicarious traumatization
Tools to take care of yourself
Further reading and resources
Download the MHHRI GBV manual
Upcoming events

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 reading and resources

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.

Wellbeing, Risk, and Human Rights Practice
University of York (2017)
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 emphasize self-sacrifice, heroism, and martyrdom. These norms inhibit defenders from expressing their anxieties and seeking help. How can we engage in discussions about wellbeing in human rights practice? How can we strengthen personal and collective strategies for wellbeing amongst defenders at risk?

Resilience as Resistance: Mental health and well-being in human rights. What risks advocates face and how they might be mitigated?
Open Global Rights (2021)
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 professionals have begun giving the issue more attention, exploring what risks advocates face and how they might be mitigated. Human rights organizations increasingly want to bolster the resilience and creativity of their staff and constituents. Defenders increasingly see their own well-being as an imperative for sustainable movements.

Mental Health Functioning in the Human Rights Field: Findings from an International Internet-Based Survey
Joscelyne et al. 2015
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. However, little is known about the impact of human rights work on the mental health of human rights advocates. This study examined the mental health profile of human rights advocates and the risk factors associated with their psychological functioning.

Download the MHHRI GBV manual

Download the manual Mental health and gender-based violence: Helping survivors of sexual violence in conflict for free from our GBV web page. The manual is also available in ArabicRussian, SpanishNepaleseUkrainian, and Portuguese. We have also created an online training on gender-based violence manual. This training material has been written for those who provide assistance and support to women who survive gender-based violence and sexual trauma during disasters, wars, and conflicts.  Furthermore, we hope it may be helpful as well to those who work with gender-based violence survivors in other settings. Please share the manual and spread it among your colleagues, organizations, or in your community.

Facebook and Instagram 
On our MHHRI Facebook page, and on Instagram we are continuously posting new and relevant articles that we add to our website, as well as events and videos.

Upcoming Events

The 10th IASP Asia Pacific Conference

The International Association for Suicide PreventionAustralia’s Gold Coast in May 2022.Early bird registrations will open in January 2022.

The 11th International Society for Health and Human Rights (ISHHR) ConferenceAll being well, the International Society for Health and Human Rights looks forward to welcoming you to the 11th ISHHR conference and program of capacity building in Medellin, Colombia 2022.The ISHHR Conference and Capacity-Building Workshops will focus on themes relevant in a Colombian context, for both local and international participants, in cooperation with Región and Reconectando.

Strengthening Women’s Rights to Mental Health and Freedom from Violence – by changing behavior, practices and attitudes and facilitating safe and adequate care.

Supporting Human Rights Defenders who risk their lives in difficult and dangerous situations, side by side with families of victims of enforced disappearance and internally displaced (IDPs).

Treatment methods after traumatic human rights abuse. Remembering the body, promoting resilience; arts and culture, traditional and indigenous approaches.

Post-conflict reconciliation, reconstruction and re-socialisation Community mental health, justice human ecology, ethnic approaches to social action, empowerment and reconciliation.

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.

We would appreciate your thoughts and suggestions on other issues you would like to see in this newsletter or if you are planning an event on related issues, please let us know so we can include your event in our newsletter.

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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