Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Apr 19 2023
“Be Well, Serve Well” – Palladium Humanitarian Responders Become Mental Health First Aiders

Over the past five years, Palladium’s Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations Team (HSOT) have been deployed 2,917 times, providing humanitarian and stabilisation support through a core team and in response to 73 crises. From the war in Ukraine to providing on-the-ground support in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Rai in the Philippines, our team have witnessed traumas and emergencies much like any other aid provider.

In an effort to address both the need for mental health support within humanitarian response teams and the need for teams to have training to provide that support for others, HSOT recently brought on Imogen Wall, a Mental Health First Aid England qualified instructor, to provide mental health first aid training.

“Mental health first aid is very similar to physical first aid,” Wall explains. “It’s about identifying signs, knowing how to handle someone having a mental health crisis, and having the confidence and knowledge of when to sign post that someone might need help.”

As part of larger industry push to destigmatise mental health and recommendations in the UK from the Ministry of Health and Social Care, mental health first aid courses like the one Wall provides are gaining momentum. Wall, who has a background in humanitarian aid and is now a licenced therapist explains that the courses are tailored to the reality of life in the aid sector. “Everything I teach is practical, research-based, focused, and realistic for people working in the kinds of environments in which we work.”

“HSOT staff routinely work in sudden onset humanitarian emergencies where they work long hours on tight deadlines,” explains HSOT Director Rebecca Pankhurst-Lapiña. “Witnessing devastation and human suffering can impact staff, even very experienced humanitarians." According to Pankhurst-Lapina, HSOT’s Human Resource team had also received feedback from staff that mental health training would be beneficial to manage stress and seek help or discuss any mental health concerns, particularly during COVID-19, when a number of staff highlighted that remote working had caused feelings of loneliness and anxiety.

“Imogen felt like a natural choice, primarily due to her experience of working in humanitarian settings,” Pankhurst-Lapina says. “She also had been on assignments with HSOT and was familiar with the work of the team, challenges, and was able to tailor the course accordingly.”

The group from HSOT that received the training were a mix of those who go on deployments and those that provide internal support from the home office, as mental health first aid is much needed on several fronts for those on HSOT. When deployed, teams are often working with people who have just experienced trauma and need mental health support, while at the same time, providing that type of help can and will lead to team members needing their own care.

"Aid workers can’t do the job that people on the ground need them to do unless they are well."

“It’s not unusual for search and rescue crews exposed to trauma to feel they shouldn't be struggling because the disaster didn’t necessarily happen to them,” explains Wall. “But as human beings we are profoundly affected by exposure to the trauma of others. It’s known as vicarious trauma and there’s significant clinical data showing that that distress can reach levels that meet the PTSD threshold, especially when working in very high pressure circumstances.”

By training those in the home office to recognise the signs of someone on the team struggling, whether back at home or in the field, it gives them the confidence to provide the necessary support and signpost that they might need help. According to Wall, it’s about training people in staying calm when they get difficult calls from the field, knowing the early signs of concern and spotting them for their teammates. “If someone comes to them and says that they’re really struggling, they need to know how to handle that conversation from every personal level.”

“That’s what this is about – making sure someone feels equipped to have a safe, empathetic conversation, which will result in a much better outcome for everyone,” she adds. “You wouldn’t go into a building site without a hard hat, and it’s the same thing here. With unstable environments and long hours, teams need to prepare for that, and they absolutely can.”

Ultimately, Wall adds, aid workers can’t do the job that people on the ground need them to do unless they are well. She coined it ‘be well, serve well’ and adds that from a pragmatic point of view, the sector has high turnover, people are getting sick and resigning, or taking leaves of absence, which is good, but really it shouldn’t get to that point in the first place. “Organisations like Palladium are doing the right thing by engaging with this training and maintaining a healthy office – it’s taking care of their people and it’s the right thing to do at every possible level.”

For HSOT, this is only the beginning. “We’ve run two sessions, and both have been well received and I have received feedback that people’s confidence in discussing and dealing with issues has increased,” says Pankhurst-Lapiña. “We’re planning to hold further sessions for another cohort of team members in the future. HSOT now has several Registered Mental Health Aiders within the team and for the recent response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, one of the Mental Health First Aiders was full time dedicated to looking after staff welfare.”

Palladium manages the implementation of the Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations Team (HSOT), a program funded with UK aid from the British people. For more information, contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com