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Aid to Zen: C – Counselling

Note to the readers: Counselling is probably a kind of western thing and it’s certainly not the only way to make it through a personal and/or professional crisis, so take what’s useful and forget the rest. The point is: we all need care and support, from friends, family and sometimes from professionals.

This post is part of Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z by Alessandra Pigni.


After years in aid we all need some counselling.

It has nothing to do with suffering from a severe mental illness and it’s certainly not a sign of weakness. Quite the opposite. Celebrate your sanity for having realised that you need to stop using missions as your personal therapy and can do with some professional help.

You’ve just seen too much suffering, encountered violence and death, survived an ambush, have been abducted by rebels, or kidnapped by militias.

And if you haven’t experienced anything extreme, no doubt you will have dealt with too many insane aid workers running off to the field in an attempt to overcome heartbreak, addiction and whatever personal crisis you can think of, only to end up as your boss and drive you insane.

You do deserve a break. Counselling can be a way to unburden your soul and regain some sense of wellbeing, a “breathing space” while you decide what’s next.

So what to do? I was going to give you “5 ways to find a therapist without wasting time” but every time I sit and attempt to write a listicle I feel I’m cheating, as if I was offering up an easy recipe, when the reality is that there are no shortcuts. So I’ll spare you the “5 quick ways to happiness” (they don’t exist) and simply share some thoughts.

aid workers' mental health

Humanity, care and a new sense of purpose

How do you go about finding a counsellor after so many years away from “home”? Ask people you trust, contact counselling associations, check out professionals online: shopping around is normal. Most important, trust your instinct and understand that a good therapist is much more than a collection of diplomas. It’s about that professional care and humanity that is too often missing in the humanitarian industry.

You found your match. There will be moments of uncertainty in your therapeutic path: when the tide gets tough don’t do the aid worker thing and ditch your therapist to run off and take up another mission. That’s the opposite of sanity: Iraq, Gaza or Afghanistan will only temporarily relieve the discomfort, and are likely to add more suffering to what is probably a pretty chaotic situation already.

Make sure you avoid another pitfall, and that would be considering your therapy as a newfound challenge to prove yourself. Neither therapy nor aid work are a survival context – the sooner we learn this, the better.

A final thought: know that most counsellors back home will not have been to Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, or Ukraine. That’s why maybe they have retained some of their sanity. There are things they may not get about you, but for that, you have your amazing community of aid workers who will always understand why you miss the field even if it drove you close to insanity.

Truth is: there is life beyond aid work and counselling may be a way to explore options that we just do not see from “the field”.


What to read:

Brené Brown, I thought it was just me (but it isn’t). Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy and power.

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Mindfulnext/Aid to Zen 2011-2017 Creative Commons License
Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.