Global HealthNewsNewsletter

To what extent do the volunteers go through the mill during a humanitarian crisis?




By Antigoni Papaioannou, Master of Global Health, Uppsala University


In 2016, the number of disasters was estimated to be 327 worldwide, of which 191 events were natural catastrophes and 136 were man- made. The resulting loss of human lives was estimated to be  11 000 people on a global scale (1). Terrorist attacks, complex disputes, immigration and uncontrolled fires have made its appearance even more often in the last two years; all those incidents are typically in need of an urgent response.

According to IFRC, a disaster is characterized as a sudden and catastrophic event that hazard the vulnerable people and as consequence, the function of a community. A disaster can lead to financial and environmental problems, loss of human lives and lack of resources and material. Additionally, it can occur either due to natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunami, droughts and disease epidemics, or man-made hazards which can include complex conflicts, war, industrial or transport accidents (2).

Any kind of support is appreciated and beneficial for a better-quality outcome. Fortunately enough, there are a lot of ways in which a person can contribute to an emergency situation. Some may donate money to humanitarian actors that represent their inner beliefs, others may fund resources and material necessary to tackle the most urgent problems in an emergency, whereas others may donate their time by working as volunteers at the site of a disaster.

Therefore, citizen participation in a disaster can be crucial for dealing efficiently with the consequences of an unexpected event, especially events that need a tremendous amount of human resources to meet the demands that arise. However, due to the unexpected, sudden and overwhelming nature of a disaster, there is a high risk of mass panic or any other strong psychological reactions to incur. A typical example is emotional agitation, which may affect both the people who experience a disaster; the direct victims, and those who get exposed to a disaster as part of a rescue team (3,4). Specifically, the spectacle of dead human bodies, children in horrible state and civilians in desperately need for help, the screaming of people in search for relatives and friends, the hearing of the last words or even the last breath of a human being may gradually influence the psychological state of an individual, particularly volunteers (3).

The volunteers have generally different professional and educational backgrounds and many of them may not have had previous experiences and may also not be aware of the severity and complexity of a situation at the outbreak of a disaster. Some of them may have a total ignorance of the working and living conditions and be full of unrealistic expectations. In a case of a disaster characterized by a high degree of exigency, volunteers will be selected randomly and hastily, thereafter, they will be thrown into the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous fields without any further preparation (3). They will be expected to cope with the required rhythms and unfavorable circumstances, and to ignore their own needs. Nonetheless, depending on the nature of a disaster and the urgency of a situation, humanitarian aid actors may lack a proper organization and supporting system for the volunteers. Caring for the well- being of volunteers, preparing and supporting them for their work during and after a disaster is of a great importance in order to maintain their productivity and efficiency.

volunteers humanitarian action mental health SNIH

All the aforementioned may lead to the increase of the stress factor which in turn can have a negative effect on the mental health status of a volunteer either in short- or long- term (4,6). Consequently, PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder), depression and other anxiety disorders such as distress and anxiety sensitivity are some of the most common outcomes among volunteers (3,4,5,6).

Volunteers with no prior training or experience and volunteers who are cumulatively exposed to trauma are more prone to suffer from PTSD and even develop substance addiction (5). The duration and severity of PTSD may vary according to the inner strength of each individual, the mechanisms of stress management and the degree of exposure to severe and intense events (3,4).

In an emergency, a relief worker is obligated to stay alert and ready to provide help where- and whenever necessary; qualifications applicable to both professional and voluntary personnel. To be in that continuous alarm status requires a body full of energy and adrenaline. Because of this intensity, many volunteers may take longer to absorb and perceive the various stimuli received in such fast paced (3,4). A realization which may occur days after the end of their duties or just few hours after receiving the specific stimulation and can shake one’s world.

Working as a volunteer in an emergency is not an easy task and it may pose a lot of risks both physically and mentally. It tests the endurance of an individual, pulls out of its comfort zone and changes its beliefs and perceptions of life. A relief worker experiences another aspect of the real world, an ugly and scary reality, in which no one would be ever ready to face. Therefore, before making the big decision, one must consider carefully the reasons behind one’s action and have an understanding of the possible consequences. The crux could not be described in a better way by the following quote “Be there for them but also be there for yourself.”



  1. Swiss Re Institute. Natural Catastrophes and man- made disasters in 2016: a year of widespread damages. March 2017. Available on:
  2. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFCR). Disaster and crisis management. Available on:
  3. Sigridur Björk Thormar, Berthold Paul Rudolf Gersons, Barbara Juen, Adelheid Marschang, Maria NeldenDjakababa, Miranda Olff. The Mental Health impact of volunteering in a disaster setting: A review. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 2010;198:529-538
  4. Hannah Strohmeier, Willem F. Scholte. Trauma- related mental health problems among national humanitarian staff: a systematic review of the literature. European Journal of Psycotraumatology. 2015;6:28541 Available on:
  5. Stephanie C. Garbern, Laura G. Ebbeling, Susan A. Bartels. A systematic review of health outcomes among disaster and humanitarian responders. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine. 2016;31:635-642
  6. Ellen Connorton, Melissa J. Perry, David Hemenway, Matthew Miller. Humanitarian relief workers and trauma- related mental illness. Epidemiologic Reviews. 2012;34: 145-155

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *