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Let's Talk Human Rights

Promoting Wellbeing and Resiliency in the Face of Trauma

By Lauren Durnwald '20

The Challenge
Human rights defenders and practitioners are often exposed to trauma, and, as a result, have to deal with their own successive trauma. One manifestation of that trauma is in the re-visualization of traumatic events. This phenomenon has recently been defined as vicarious trauma as explained in the American Counseling Association’s Fact Sheet #9. Human rights researchers, Knucky, Satterthwaite, and Brown, found that of 346 individuals who were currently working in or had previously worked in the human rights field, the majority of respondents (89%) had been exposed, directly or indirectly, to some kind of trauma. Of the respondents, roughly 19% displayed symptoms consistent with a full diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 14.7% reported symptoms matching major depressive disorder, and 19% reported having experienced burnout during some time in their career. 

There is a shared mentality held by many of those drawn to human rights advocacy that makes them resistant to focusing on their own mental health. This mentality has been characterized as “martyrdom,” or the desire to sacrifice self for others; a “savior or hero mentality,” or the perception that it is one’s responsibility to save others; and the “cowboy attitude,” where one regards their own wellbeing as a luxury unworthy of their attention. Just as it is necessary to enact healing practices for survivors of human rights violations, it is crucial to do the same for human rights defenders to foster resilience and manage burnout. Historically, human rights defenders have not had the tools to manage their own trauma. This is a trend that is changing, with policies and practices promoting resilience being implemented in the human rights sphere. 

Addressing Human Rights-related Trauma
To begin to address this challenge, organizations should engage in mapping existing initiatives that support mental health among their staff and partners, and develop additional strategies to support defenders with managing their trauma. Existing tools for supporting resilience include expressive writing and mindfulness techniques. One recommendation is to include psychosocial descriptors in job descriptions to demonstrate an organization’s commitment to its employees’ positive mental health before a prospective hire even joins the team. The organization could then prioritize self and group care of its employees through tactics, such as workshops on security and mental health, to demonstrate its commitment to their wellbeing. Organizations like the Institute for Strategic Dialogue are addressing the mental health of researchers, journalists, and others in this field, using specific recommendations, such as limiting the amount of time allowed for working with extreme materials and implementing counselors.

Coping flexibility, or the “ability to flexibly employ different coping styles,” has been shown to be associated with better mental health outcomes, including prevention and treatment of PTSD and major depressive disorder, conditions many human rights defenders contend with. Different coping styles include “forward-focused coping (optimism, helping others, and goal-oriented thinking)” and “trauma-focused coping (focusing on the experience and significance of a potentially traumatic event).” Access to cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, crisis counseling, and solution-focused therapy with education on specific coping skills have been shown to reduce depression in American troops. These strategies could be carried over to the human rights field. Finally, another critical step is greater inclusion of mental health initiatives within grants targeted to human rights organizations. Specific actions in this regard include implementing well-being measures into the grant-making process, including staff well-being in NGO impact measures, creating funding for the hiring of mental health professionals, and funding research on human rights workers’ mental health. 

Experts and Resources
Individuals committed to the healing of human rights defenders have been trailblazers in this area. One such individual is Meg Satterthwaite, Director of NYU law school’s Global Justice Clinic, who spoke about her work at the Human Rights Center’s Social Practice of Human Rights Conference in 2019 (SPHR-19). Founder and Director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky created this organization to raise awareness and respond to human rights defenders’ trauma. Hope and Rudo Chiyudu are activists at African Women’s Development Fund and authors of Strategies For Building An Organisation With A Soul, a guide for building sustainable social justice organizations that care for their employees. The leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, including Opal Tometi - a keynote speaker at the SPHR19 - created the Healing Justice Toolkit, promoting resilience among advocates in the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are several other organizations focused on improving the resilience of human rights defenders. Examples include Heal into Action, Capacitar, Human Rights Defenders Hub, Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, International Trauma Studies Program, and Open Global Rights. Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic’s Resilience, Trauma, and Wellbeing Policy strives to mitigate the impact of trauma. The Dart Center has compiled a list of suggestions for working with traumatic imagery. Individuals belonging to communities facing a history of persecution who may be more vulnerable to trauma must be given particular consideration. The National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network does this by working to facilitate better mental health for queer and trans people of color. 

There are also events centered around this topic; they include the webinar on self-care & collective wellbeing, workshops & lectures hosted by the Human Rights Defenders Hub, and Civil Rights Defenders’ burnout prevention training sessions. Retreats and fellowships like the Temporary International Relocation Initiatives (TIRI), Rest & Respite and Fellowship, and the Protective Fellowship Scheme for Human Rights Defenders can allow human rights defenders to temporarily escape from stressful environments while recharging and networking with individuals in similar situations. Finally, some emerging grounding and mindfulness tools include podcasts like Healing Justice Podcast and Tonic


Lauren Durnwald is a graduate assistant at the Human Rights Center; she is graduating in December 2020 with a Master of Arts, Interdisciplinary Studies.

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