In the mid-1990s, Kerley Most worked for an NGO in the West African country of Guinea. She loved her job and worked late into the night and on weekends. There was always more to be done, but she was young and eager. As the years went on, the stress built up, from small day-to-day challenges to more significant issues. She dealt with cancelled projects, political instability, and — hardest of all — watching other people suffer and not being able to stop it.
“My passion was killing me,” she said. “I was burnt out.”
She was at the breaking point and had two options: Get help or quit.
“Luckily, I was able to get support from mental health professionals there,” she said.
“They taught me to take one day at a time, pay attention to your body, remember that although you are passionate about this work, you are human, and you must respect your own humanity. I found my own rhythm and my own way of answering the demands of a very tough job.”
The impact of that experience transformed the way she approached both life and her job, and she continued to work in Guinea for seven more years.
When she came to the United States, she earned her doctorate in counselling and changed careers. Now, as a consultant and clinician with USAID’s Staff Care program, she has combined her development background and her passion for mental health to continue to help people.
According to Tabitha Mann, Staff Care Clinical Team Lead, it was about eight years ago that USAID recognized that although aid workers were physically healthy when they returned from countries affected by disasters of conflict, they were still carrying invisible wounds. The need for supportive services became evident and out of that realization came USAID Staff Care.
“There was a real push to figure out how we could better support people and make it easier for them to get help.” Mann said. “You shouldn’t have to raise your hand and say ‘I’m hurting.’ There should be an automatic sense that we are here to support you, we recognize that we are asking you to do something that is extremely difficult for both you and your family. We are here for you.”
USAID’s Staff Care offers counseling, group support, wellness, and work-life balance programs through a range of individual counseling sessions and group workshops. They help people cope with trauma and deal with stresses like deployment anxiety, as well as the more mundane issues associated with trying to live a ‘normal’ life while working at a job that can require you to be out of the country for more than half the year.
“We see a lot of people dealing with work challenges, but we can also work with you on anything that is making your life difficult,” she said. “If you are having a difficult time with your spouse, your work will not be optimal. Given the demographics of aid, which is highly female, we might talk about what motherhood looks like if you are working in this field. We cover every type of issue you can imagine.”
Counselors are also available to deploy overseas to provide support to staff in the field after disasters. Staff care counselors deployed to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake and Mali in 2015 after 20 people, including a USAID employee, were killed in a terrorist attack at the Radisson Blu hotel.
According to Judy Greenberg, USAID Employee Assistance Program Clinician, the first step in dealing with stress is knowing yourself.
“You need to check in with yourself so that you know when it is time to intervene,” she said. “Ask yourself, ‘what do I need to do to take care of myself right now?’”
Kerley Most agrees. When working with clients, her first step is to help them get their body to relax.
“Stress takes the brain to a place of survival and in survival mode you just think of ‘now.’ You cannot plan, you cannot dream. You lose the ability to imagine other possibilities,” she said.
Simple things can work, like learning proper breathing techniques, listening to your body, connecting with your community, or disconnecting. “For me, the answer to my stress was learning to disconnect and finding time for myself, honoring my boundaries,” Most said.
Greenberg likes to get outdoors and hike. “All I can think about is ‘right foot, left foot, breath in breath out.’” she explained. “It can be very helpful to have your brain just focused on just that. Plus, it’s nice to be reminded that there are places in the world where things are just as they should be. It helps you take in the big picture.”
The most important thing is to know when you need help and to not be afraid to ask for it.
“It’s so important to remember that experiencing stress is not a sign of weakness,” Most said. “It is a sign of being human.”