Human rights work is a powerful and fulfilling vocation. And it is equally hugely challenging for human rights practitioners. These practitioners are often exposed to distressing situations directly and indirectly. From those working directly with survivors of human rights abuses to those working indirectly on human rights abuse issues, the need for taking care of one’s self is extremely important. We all know that the work is precious and valuable, and yes, we need to be strong, healthy and balanced to do it well -- but we take care of ourselves first and foremost because we are valuable.
This online dialogue addressed the risks of human rights work: compassion fatigue, burnout, secondary and vicarious trauma, and stress. These risks can harm ourselves, our partners and our families, and those that we work to protect. This dialogue is a space to share resources, approaches and ideas for how to address these risks. If you work in the field of human rights, join this dialogue on taking care of yourself.
In this dialogue, human rights practitioners discussed perhaps the most challenging aspect of being engaged in human rights work – sustaining activists’ mental health and energy. Human rights practitioners bring attention to disturbing events and heinous crimes worldwide, and often work in dangerous conditions. This dialogue emphasized the necessity of taking care of one’s self. Practitioners shared various approaches, resources, and discussed challenges.
Defining self-care and its importance
- Self-care - ability to engage in human rights work without sacrificing other important parts of one life. The ability to maintain a positive attitude towards the work despite challenges. Self-care can also be understood as a practitioner’s right to be well, safe, and fulfilled.
- Burn-out – a state of emotional and often physical exhaustion; often resembles acute stress disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Burn-out does not refer to spending too much time on a task, but rather to an activist’s stress response stemming from the perception that the energy they have invested into a task has yielded insufficient returns. Although popular understanding of activism dictate a self-less image, it is vital for activists and their work to avoid burn-out.
- Placing self-care at the core of our work
- Challenging the idea of activism as selflessness – the assumption that a good activist is one that dedicates all of their energy to others often causes burn-out. The idea of a “wellness activist” suggests that in order to be an effective activist, one ought to attend to their own needs.
- Understanding self-care as a collective goal – self-care is not simply an individual’s concern for their own well-being, it is in organizations’ best interest to take care of activists. Hence, self-care of activists is best achieved by adopting a systems-oriented approach that integrates personal, professional, organizational and community techniques.
Challenges to providing & performing self-care
- Self-care “not a virtue” – when talking about activism, the cultural assumption that self-care is an expression of egocentrism looms large. One of the biggest challenges to providing self-care is making human rights practitioners aware that to be a good activist does not mean that one has to suffer. An inspiring way of thinking about self-care is to position ourselves as models of healthy behaviors and working habits, or as one dialogue participant mentioned “making the means by which we work consistent with the ends we wanted to create.”
- Unavailability of self-care resources – many organizations do not have self-care resources readily available. This can be countered by creating a culture of self-care. For example, by creating a staff support network comprised of human rights workers from different NGOs working in the same area.
Creating a Culture of Self-Care
Promoting self-care in the activist community is not up to the individual alone. Successful self-care is promoted both by changes in practitioners’ approach to their work, as well as through intentional efforts on the side of the organization. The way an organization operates influences the way activists conceive of the goal of their work and their own well-being. It is important that organizations do not adopt a narrow focus on “containing” crises, but that they pro-actively invest in “growth” of their staff.
What can an individual do?
- Think long-term
- Take care of your body
- Follow a sustainable lifestyle, develop personal coping strategies
What can an organization do to provide self-care?
- Build trust and confidence within the organization
- Focus on prevention
- Organize group meetings
- Create a vision, do not focus on listing problems
- Create a ripple effect – For example, Capacitar in collaboration with Timor Aid trained a group of National Trainers and these trainers trained others: teachers, policemen/women, youth, social workers etc. Then the National trainers do a routine visit to the above to make sure they have enough support.
- Holding the organization accountable for their staff’s self-care
Where can an organization start? – 4 steps on how to prevent burnout in your organization!
Examples of support mechanisms
Organizations that invest in fostering a culture of self-care can draw on a multiplicity of resources available to activists – such as retreats, workshops, and seminars.
- The Stone House (North Carolina, USA)
- Stillness in Action (Australia)
- EarthWorks (Australia)
- Front Line Fellowship
- Contemplative Mind in Society offers a list of retreats
- International Partnership for Women's Peace (Thailand)
- Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby College (USA)
New Tactics Resources
- New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners has a brief section on "Self-Care: Caring for your most valuable resource" on page 164-165 of the book.
- Staying Safe: Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders. – New Tactics dialogue
- In the tiger's mouth: an empowerment guide for social action - Katrina Shields - how to avoid burn-out, network, create stable groups, as well as how to approach listeners with bad news that they may not want to hear. The guide includes exercises that encourage discovery and growth, both for individuals and groups.
- Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization - Karen W. Saakvitne, Laurie Ann Pearlman -A practical, how-to guide on secondary traumatization designed for all levels of professionals, paraprofessionals, and volunteers who work with traumatized persons. Contains exercises for individuals and groups that come from the authors' experience giving workshops on this topic.
- Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World' – Joanna Macy
- Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership – Berit and George Lake - This book focuses on strategies on how to maintain a healthy and sustainable organization. The chapter titled “Pacing Yourself for the Journey” may be of particular use for activists.
- The Transition Handbook – Rob Hopkins- contains a valuable section on psychological adjustment.
- Stress Management Plain and Simple - Jacquelyn Ferguson – contains Stress Symptom Assessment and tips & tools on how to manage your stress.
- "Self-Care and Self-Defense Manual for Feminist Activists" by Marina Bernal, Elige and Artemisa.
- Organizational Assessment Surveys: 'How Well Does Your Group Empower Its Members?' and 'How Burnout Prone is Your Organisation?'
- Headington Institute (http://www.headington-institute.org/) resources on stress, trauma and resilience
- Emergency Kits by Capacitar : include simple, basic practices to deal with stress and manage emotions. The kit is available in 13 languages.