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Integrating a psychosocial perspective in human rights works

Maik Müller 27 June 2017 – Through my work with Peace Brigades International (PBI), I’ve been in contact with diverse members of local and international NGOs working on human rights, but few—if any—of these organisations have integrated a clear approach to counteracting the negative psychosocial impacts of human rights work in repressive contexts.

As an independent consultant, I recently worked with PBI to document and systemize the work done by PBI Mexico over the last 10 years, and our case study indicates that the inclusion of a psychosocial perspective can be an important mechanism to strengthen human rights organisations and their members. In our surveys and interviews, past and current members of the organization gave a variety of examples of how integration of the psychosocial perspective—in addition to specific tools and procedures—led to increased resilience, decreased internal conflicts, and improvements in protection and security work.

Flickr/Jonathan McIntosh (Some rights reserved)
"Paseo de Humanidad" (Parade of Humanity), a painted metal mural, is attached to the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales.

Our interviews and surveys found that sensitisation and awareness raising about the psychosocial impacts of political violence (and human rights work in such contexts) were key—people who are aware of the psychosocial impacts of repression are more willing to prioritise adequate self-care.

To increase this awareness, PBI offered regular mental health workshops facilitated by an external expert, which addressed the impacts of violence and the problems that members of the organization deal with in their daily work. PBI also facilitated self-organized workshops, which are set up and managed by the teams in order to work on any issues related to mental health. These workshops—utilizing existing tools, knowledge, capacities and previous experiences of each member—helped staff and volunteers to recognise negative impacts and to develop strategies to prevent, cope with or counteract these effects.

Another important tool that the organization introduced was “check-ins”: these were spaces at the beginning of meetings (in person or virtual) where each person can comment on how they are doing and about aspects that influence their well-being (work-related or personal) and in which members can hear from others about how they are doing, express needs, concerns. The excessive workload and the dynamics of human rights work in the field can lead to situations in which team members do not know how their teammates are doing, and this lack of exchange can lead to misunderstandings, friction and conflicts. Proper use of check-ins can be a useful tool for preventing conflict and to promote mutual support. The tool helped to get staff and volunteers used to including expression of emotions and (the lack of) “well-being” into certain spaces, and in many occasions team members noted an increase in their empathy for each other.

In addition, PBI Mexico created “mental health minimums”, which are individual commitments by all team members to practice self-care and maintain a good state of mental health during the year in the field. These minimum commitments are different for each team member and involve simple things such as doing sports at least once a week, writing daily, and going to dance classes.

They are the result of an individual reflection process (sometimes promoted and/or guided in a workshop) and are shared with the other members of the team so that everyone is aware of each other’s needs. The implementation of these minimums is done individually but if stress dynamics linked to a lack of implementation arise, the team uses the workshops and/or the “check-ins” to follow-up as a collective. As such, the minimums help with conflicts about different perspectives on work management and self-care.

The organization also decided to rotate certain tasks considering the mental health of the team members. One example is the person who is on-call. This person is responsible for checking the phone and e-mail in order to respond to emergency situations, and PBI has taken care to avoid exposing the same people to the most difficult testimonies, such as victims of torture and forced disappearances. “During my year, the hardest moments for me emotionally were listening to testimonies of mothers of disappeared people”, stated one of the volunteers. During the workshops, the external expert provided tools to better deal with such situations and at the same time the rotation system avoided constant exposure to these testimonies.

Finally, PBI offered individual support programs with therapists through Skype. This is an external service to support employees and volunteers so that they can prevent and/or cope with situations or periods of stress and/or emotional charge. PBI has a working agreement with the European Gestalt Therapy Association where members can request individual pro-bono counselling at any time throughout their service (before, during and after the volunteer year, and also for paid staff) in order to prevent burnout and secondary trauma. At the beginning of the collaboration volunteers and staff did not used this specific service much. PBI Mexico started to promote this opportunity for support and integrated further information about this service in training and orientation of staff and volunteers alike. Now there is a regular use of the service and in the questionnaires and interviews several people stressed the importance of this tool.

PBI Mexico made extensive use of an external professional expert to support field teams to address the negative psychosocial impacts of the dynamics inherent to frontline human rights work. Before this collaboration (ten years ago) there was little work on mental health and the accompaniment work of PBI Mexico did not consider well (if at all) psychosocial aspects of the security and protection work for human rights defenders. While there was initially resistance from some members, people were rapidly convinced once they experienced the support. Over time the collaboration with the external expert led to the integration of a psychosocial approach in the internal and external work of the organization. One public example of this integration is PBI Mexico’s facilitator’s guide for security and protection workshops, which explicitly integrates a psychosocial perspective in each training module.

Although we found that workshops with the external expert were especially important, it was the combination of the different tools and procedures that led to a proper integration of the psychosocial perspective. The ongoing support via the regular workshops helped to develop or adjust these tools and procedures to make them more effective. We found that participative processes were important, as commitment and implementation depends on buy-in from all team members—coping mechanisms should not be imposed from the outside, in order to avoid resistance and/or dependence on intervention. Our study also illustrates the need to create an organizational culture that not only allows and promotes the use of time and resources for well-being and mental health, but actually integrates it as important part of the human rights work that is obligatory, reflected in work plans and job descriptions. Unless this incorporation happens, we observed that self-care gets lost or de-prioritized in the frequently overloaded agendas of HRDs and their organisations.

The horizontal and participatory working approach of PBI has certainly facilitated progress, but most of the tools and procedures described can be integrated and adapted by other local and international NGOs alike. In addition, a similar type of case study to what we completed could also help organizations identify their specific needs.

Of course, a cultural shift and strong effort to raise awareness are still required in order to foster well-being and counter negative impacts of repression within the sector. But profound changes in the staff and organisation are possible with proper investment in and implementation of psychosocial support.

Maik Müller is an external consultant and works for PBI, partner in the implementation of

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