How I ended up specializing in stress, trauma, resilience and humanitarian work

You have a masters degree in Forensic Psychology and one in International Peace Studies. In pursuing forensics, did you have in mind that you wanted to apply it to “peacebuilding” or “humanitarian work”?

Not really. I spent time in many different countries growing up but I didn’t have a clear vision for working internationally when I decided to do a masters in forensic psychology. I simply picked it because it was interesting.

I was almost finished with six years of psychology study when it became clear to me that I wanted to go into humanitarian work – and I didn’t particularly care at that point whether I got a job that was primarily in the psych field. I was also interested in human rights work, and advocacy, and community development programs, etc.

However, while I didn’t have a clear “career plan”, the experience that I gained with stress and trauma during my forensic psych internships (in prison and with the police) stood me in very good stead in my subsequent jobs, and was actually my entrée into humanitarian work.

So how did you get from studying forensic psychology in Australia into international work?

You can read all about this in detail in my memoir, Love At The Speed of Email. The short version is that I spent some time in the Philippines volunteering for local non-profit organizations, working on my first novel, and looking for jobs or internships in humanitarian work.

Four or five months after I arrived in Manila – after applying for many different positions all over the world – I was accepted into a Canadian government internship program called CANADEM.

As part of this program the OSCE Mission to Croatia offered me a six-month position with them as a stress management and communication skills trainer for their staff. This was a volunteer position with the organization, but the Canadian government gave me a modest stipend that covered living expenses.

What happened after that? Why did you go back to school to study Peace Studies? Why Notre Dame?

After my time in Croatia I returned to Australia, but by this time I knew that I wanted to work in humanitarian field. I also knew some further training in peace studies, international relations, or conflict resolution would help. I was attracted to the Notre Dame program for at least two reasons – it’s an excellent program, and they offer a full scholarship to every masters student they accept. 

How did you end up at the Headington Institute after Notre Dame?

While I was still completing my peace study degree I met the President of the Headington Institute. I was fortunate that he saw the potential in my background and experiences (growing up as a third culture kid, stress and trauma psychology, international peace studies) and decided that I would be a great fit for the Institute. I signed a contract to move to LA and work with the Institute as the Director of Training and Education Services before I finished my degree at Notre Dame, and I stayed with the Institute for almost seven years until we moved to Laos.

What does the Headington Institute do?

The Headington Institute provides psychological and spiritual support to humanitarian workers worldwide. For example, the Headington Institute:

  • Provides counseling and debriefing for individuals or teams;
  • Facilitates interactive workshops on topics to do stress, trauma, resilience, and self-care;
  • Provides free education and training material on the Institute website; and
  • Helps executives and managers think about staff care issues on a strategic and organizational level.

Why does the Institute talk about spiritual support as well as psychological support?

Spirituality – that deepest sense of meaning and purpose and connectedness – is often not openly discussed by humanitarian workers or NGOs. However it is a core part of what drives and motivates (and sometimes hurts) many people in this field, so it can be helpful to create space to discuss issues of values and purpose and faith.

What do humanitarian workers face, psychologically and spiritually?

For this one I’m going to refer you to the Headington Institute’s website. Visit the Online Training Program.

I’m interested in staff care – what should I study and how can I get my foot in the door?

People from a very wide variety of backgrounds end up eventually finding their way into staff care. Many have backgrounds in psychology, social work, or psychiatry, but I also know people who were originally trained as journalists, or human resource professionals.

Being a specialist in something can help, but I think it’s more about viewing whatever training you’re getting through the “staff care” lenses than getting any one specific degree. It’s also a lot about experience. If it’s international work you’re interested in, traveling widely and seizing opportunities to work in different places will be invaluable.

At present there are very few jobs specifically for mental health people wishing to work in support roles for humanitarian workers. To date there are only a couple of organizations specifically focusing on these sorts of issues (see the websites listed above). Some humanitarian organizations are starting to hire their own support staff (CARE has done this, for example). But more often than not those hired are senior staff – psychologists or social workers that have also worked in relief and development.

If you know you want to end up in staff support specifically, perhaps something to consider is seeking a job or internship in psychosocial programming and getting experience in that area, with a long term aim of moving from victim work to staff support.

What advice do you have for students as we pursue careers and dreams in the coming months and years?

I feel hesitant to give “advice” as such. I’m not exactly the poster child for well-thought-out career planning and I do realize that career counselors may not advocate that anyone emulate my “do what’s interesting and just make it up as you go along” style. But, given that I’m not a career counselor, I guess I’d say I’d hope you choose to do what interests you rather than what you think you “should” do (if they’re different). Following passion won’t necessarily lead to easy times, but it’ll keep things interesting. And what would life be without “interesting”?

Oh, and I’ve witnessed many early-career burnouts of promising and vibrant humanitarian workers – so I would also say follow passion, but don’t do it 24 hours a day. Keep decent work hours whenever possible. Say no sometimes. Make the decision to have life be more than just work right from the beginning, because in the long run life without life outside of work isn’t much either.

If you’re a student, here are some things to consider for those wanting to end up in humanitarian work:

  • Study abroad: Pick up some international experience during your university years.
  • Do volunteer work or intern for local internationally-focused organizations: E.g., World Affairs Councils, refugee groups, cultural societies, activist organizations, and non-profits.
  • Learn another language: It’s a definite plus if you can speak the language of a country you’re interested in working in.
  • Consider focusing your study on a particular region or area: Region-specific expertise may stand you in good stead later.
  • Seriously consider graduate study at some point in your journey: This will also build your knowledge base around a particular issue or region.
  • If you are studying a trade or profession (e.g., engineering) keep at it until you’re registered: If you’re properly qualified you’ll be more valuable to prospective employers.