TEDDY CHAKEE and ELIAS OMER from our psychosocial team have in recent months been providing mental health support to NGO workers who live and work in the war-impacted Tigray region of Ethiopia. Here’s their story.
For people who don’t know, what’s happened in Tigray in recent years?
TEDDY: In 2020 a conflict began between a paramilitary group and the Ethiopian government. It lasted two years. There’s now a ceasefire, but many people have died, and it’s had a devastating impact on the economy, environment and society. People have been displaced from their homes. Infrastructure has been destroyed. Roads closed. Food and other necessities are harder to find. There’s limited access to internet and telephone connection. It’s a very difficult environment.
ELIAS: This was a place I went to on vacation prior to the war. It’s always been a uniquely hospitable community. The conflict has caused great social and psychological problems for these people. Many now live in unimaginable conditions. You hear a lot of helplessness, hopelessness and horror. People are still struggling to survive.
Tell us about the work you’re doing.
ELIAS: Various INGOs asked Thrive to help support the mental health and wellbeing of their teams who work in the region. These are teams of local people who were serving their community, often whilst going through the same hardships and traumas as those they were serving. I’m talking about seeing loved ones and neighbours murdered or raped. Witnessing deaths and destruction all around them. This kind of thing. I’ve been providing psychological support for an NGO that’s supporting internally displaced people.
TEDDY: And I’ve been supporting teams who are providing psychosocial support for local people to help them process their traumatic experiences. So we’ve been providing group therapy, one-on-one counselling and training. Our overall aim is to help staff process their stress and trauma, to function better given the situation, and to develop resilience.
ELIAS: And what’s been unusual about this piece of work is that Teddy and I have both travelled from our homes, to live in the same place as the people going through these hardships, as we support them. And so the bullet-riddled buildings, and the broken glass. It’s all around you.
In what ways has trauma impacted the people you’re supporting?
TEDDY: It depletes energy, leaving people dry and lethargic. Many are also triggered by sounds, people or events that remind them of their own traumatic experiences. This can make it difficult for them to work in their office or travel to other places.
ELIAS: When I first met one of the teams I was working with, they were still in shock. Even the older people who had lived through previous wars were taken aback by the violence and destruction. Many have nightmares and flashbacks, and it’s been difficult for them to move on with their lives.
How does this impact them at work?
TEDDY: Well you cannot give what you don’t have. If they don’t have the energy to support their clients, they become vulnerable to burnout. Some staff forge a togetherness, but some become stressed and irritable, which can lead to workplace conflict. Some worry that the war isn’t over and the worst is yet to come. Some become workaholics, working long hours to try to make a difference, but this can lead to burnout and strain relationships with family and friends.
ELIAS: Trauma can also distance people emotionally and mentally from their work. Some people feel like they’re working, but their body is not there. They may feel upset and relive what happened during the war, which can affect their focus and ability to work.
What changes have you seen in clients during the course of your work?
ELIAS: Even within one session, I’ve seen people lift their spirits and smile. I’ve seen them interact with their peers more positively, with big grins and friendly handshakes. This is so encouraging, and I attribute it to the strength that people have within themselves. They are able to go deep inside and connect with that strength.
TEDDY: I’ve seen teams start to work better together as well. And I also feel like I’ve seen people come back to life. I’m thinking of one person in particular who when I first met was really struggling to function. He was so lethargic or depressed. But over time and through therapy he became a new person. I could physically see the weight lift from him. He carried himself differently, he sat differently, he talked differently. His thoughts and emotions were different. He was lighter, more energetic, and more vibrant.
ELIAS: And this work is still ongoing. Healing from trauma takes time. It requires ongoing support and care. But it’s not always about spending lots of money. As well as mental health support that we can provide, it’s also about employers offering flexible work arrangements, acknowledging the hard work of their teams, and allowing that time to heal.
What has surprised you in this work?
TEDDY: Seeing the human ability to bounce back has surprised me. The resilience and grit. I kept asking myself “could I deal with even a quarter of what I’m hearing?”. It made me realise how far people can expand their capacity to absorb painful experiences.
ELIAS: I’ve been very impressed by the NGO leaders I’ve worked with as well. They understand the hardships their team has gone through. They’ve created space for their team to access support. They’ve told their team that their health is a priority. They have recognised the hard work of their teams. All this goes a long way in helping team members to heal.
TEDDY: I agree. Where I was working, staff would have a half day each week where they were free to do any activity that would rejuvenate them. Some staff would get together for coffee or go for a walk. And also, each week there would be a half-day training for the entire team to focus on their mental health.
ELIAS: Another thing that has surprised me is that even in the midst of this suffering, I’ve seen incredible resilience and generosity. During the conflict, aid workers were often the only ones receiving a salary, and they would share their salaries with the community. This helped sustain people. It showed people they weren’t alone and they could rely on each other. This sense of community is still strong, and it will help Tigray recover.
What would you like readers to take away from this blog post?
TEDDY: Mental health support is essential: not providing it can be a matter of life and death. I’m talking about suicide, inability to function, and other serious, complicated issues. So if an organisation delays providing support – if they become reactive rather than proactive – then it might be too late.
ELIAS: And the pain people go through teaches them perspective, creativity, purpose, and vision. Instead of harming them, it can motivate them to create solutions to their own challenges. This is what we mean when we talk about post-traumatic growth. Not everyone needs to go through trauma to experience growth, but those who do often come out stronger and wiser. These people can be so valuable at work, as they can bring new perspectives and ideas to the table.