Trauma, Depression, and Burnout in the Human Rights Field: Identifying Barriers and Pathways to Resilient Advocacy

HRLR Online May 25, 2018
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Sarah Knuckey is the Lieff Cabraser Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Director of the Human
Rights Clinic, and Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School.

Margaret Satterthwaite is a Professor of Clinical Law at N.Y.U. School of Law and the Faculty Director for the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights.

Adam Brown is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Sarah Lawrence College.

Human rights advocates often confront trauma and stress in their work. They are exposed to testimony about heinous abuses; work in insecure locations; visit physical sites of abuse; review forensic, photographic, and video evidence; directly witness abuses; experience threats; and can also suffer detention, be attacked, or be tortured themselves. Such exposure risks adversely impacting the wellbeing and mental health of advocates. While the human rights field is diverse and work varies widely, most—if not all—advocates are likely directly or indirectly exposed to potentially traumatic events or material in the course of their work. The degree and type of exposure to human rights violations and insecurity can vary considerably among advocates: they work on human rights issues ranging from genocide to the right to water, in the midst of extreme poverty or armed conflict, as well as in countries experiencing relative peace and economic advantage. Some human rights advocates live and work in the same community, documenting abuses close to home. Others take up positions in national, regional, or international organizations, traveling to the scene of violations for defined periods. Many advocates have a wide variety of experiences over the course of a lifetime. One constant is that human rights advocates are likely to work in environments with abusive, violent, threatening, or otherwise distressing materials that can pose risks to advocates’ mental health and wellbeing. Yet many human rights advocates have little education in or support for the potential mental health impacts of their work, there is very little research in this area in either the human rights or psychology fields, and there is limited evidence-based guidance for promoting resilience and sustainable advocacy practices.

This Article is part of an effort to close these gaps and to document the mental health of human rights advocates, who, in the pursuit of the rights of others, may neglect their own wellbeing. The Article is also part of an effort to understand the causes and dynamics of both positive and adverse wellbeing among advocates, with a view to improving how advocates are prepared for and conduct their work. It is crucial to identify specific factors that might place human rights advocates at risk for negative mental health impacts, as well as those factors that may help them develop resilience and ensure sustainable work practices, at both the individual and the institutional levels.

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