International humanitarian work may increase depression risk: study

October 10, 2012

New York – Exposure to chronic stressors may put international humanitarian workers at risk for mental health problems, according to a study from Columbia University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a survey of 212 international humanitarian workers, 3.8 percent experienced anxiety symptoms before being deployed, and 10.4 percent reported symptoms of depression, the study stated. Those figures rose after deployment – 11.8 percent and 19.5 percent, respectively. Three to six months after returning home, anxiety rates among workers fell to 7.8 percent; however, depression increased to 20.1 percent.

Researchers found that having a history of mental illness increased the risk for anxiety, and high levels of stress were tied to burnout and depression. Conversely, workers with strong social support exhibited lower levels of depression, distress, burnout and lack of accomplishment.

Researchers recommended non-governmental organizations screen humanitarian workers for a history of mental illness, inform them of risks, provide psychological support and a supportive workplace, and ensure workloads are manageable.

The study was published online Sept. 12 in the journal PLOS ONE.