Depression in Field Life

During a mission in the field, you may perhaps hear a colleague remark “You seem to have changed recently. You look depressed.” Of course, you say to yourself that with what you’re seeing every day it’s not surprising!

But you must differentiate between being occasionally “fed up”, or feeling sad about the human distress you encounter in your work, and a lasting state which is changing your personality: your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviour and even your health. If the latter occurs, the chances are that you are suffering from depression.

Depression: What causes it ?

Depression symptoms - test and signs - CHP

There are many factors. You may have arrived in the field already depressed without realising it. You may have left behind unresolved personal problems (relationship, financial, etc.), thinking you could solve them by changing your life. Perhaps you may even have had psychological difficulties in the past, which you were not aware of and therefore unresolved.

Prolonged dependence on addictive products (alcohol, tobacco, drugs, medication) can also disguise a state of chronic depression. Certain medications may also create psychological problems (anti-malaria drugs for instance).

Of course, depression occurs frequently in humanitarian field conditions and is associated with cumulative stress and burnout, or some aspects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In certain environments, continued isolation may lead to feelings of loneliness which are difficult to handle. Or one may have to evolve in a dysfunctional team, with little or no recognition of the work accomplished, and/or with a supervisor having a difficult personality. Certain environments with chronic exposure to violence, with no control over what is happening except hiding, may, in the long run, provoke symptoms of depression.

It is therefore vital to avoid blaming yourself of laziness, lack of will power or weakness of character. Recognising symptoms of depression is the first step towards recovery: no one is a superman or a wonder woman!

Signs of depression : How do I know if I’m depressed ?

First, recognise the three failsafe signs:

  • What you are doing no longer interests you.
  • You  have “the blues” most of the time
  • Getting up in the morning seems an insurmountable effort.

You may also have at least 3 of the following symptoms of depression

  • Feeling lethargic , or on the contrary hyperactive
  • Feeling vaguely guilty or undervalued
  • Not having an appetite and  losing weight or, on the contrary, binge-eating  and  putting on weight
  • Often thinking about death or suicide and becoming pessimistic and cynical
  • Getting  yourself, consciously or unwittingly, into risky situations
  • Having difficulty concentrating, thinking and remembering
  • Inability to make decisions and procrastination
  • Insomnia or other sleep problems, feeling drowsy and sleepy during daytime
  • Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
  • Sexual problems, low libido, impotence, anxiety, guilt, etc…

There are also physical signs which can be added to these, which can progressively  become  chronic:

  • All kinds of aches and pains for no apparent medical reasons: headaches, back pain, stomach ache…
  • Digestive problems: heartburn, ulcers, diarrhoea or chronic constipation, nausea…
  • Repeated respiratory tract infections: bronchitis, sinusitis…
  • Allergies: eczema, psoriasis, hay fever, asthma…

If these problems become chronic, it may indicate signs of depression.

What can I do about it ?

First of all, examine your attitude towards  depression:

  • Can you simply accept the idea that I may have this problem, or do I prefer not to recognise the signs?
  • Do you find it hard to talk about yourself to others, or to ask for help?
  • You know you’re depressed, but where can you find adequate help in the field?

If you are ready to face up to the problem, this will allow you to:

  • Find out if there are physical causes or psychological factors involved
  • Find out what can be done in your immediate field environment
  • Speak to someone close or familiar with this kind of problem.

If you see yourself in what has been described here, if you wish to have advice free of charge, but protected by our rule of confidentiality, send us an email at support@humanitarian-psy.org. Our team may be able to help you sort out your situation and advise you. They can also refer you to a specialist if necessary.

© CHP 2014

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