You Cannot Give from an Empty Cup: How One Anti-Trafficking Organization Centers Mental Health
May 31, 2022
This post is co-authored with staff from Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART).
It’s Thursday at 3 pm.
Like every Thursday afternoon, staff gather in a small conference room in Nairobi’s city center. Their casual chatter fades as the session’s facilitator enters. She smiles before she opens with her familiar greeting, “So, how do you feel?”
This meeting between staff and therapist has been a routine part of the HAART workweek for the last one year. Though not required, staff from all departments regularly attend. There is no formal structure or predetermined agenda. Rather, the sessions are just a way of checking in with staff, of making sure that they are ok.
The Global Fund may not be a direct service provider, but our partner Awareness Against Human Trafficking -HAART is. They have been supporting survivors of human trafficking in Kenya for over a decade- from basic needs support to psychosocial counseling to economic empowerment activities.
They work daily with girls, boys, men and women who have been abused or exploited and who are working to overcome that trauma. It’s rewarding and necessary work, for sure. But it can take a toll, and that toll can be greater than any even realize. As one member of the HAART team recalls, “I did not know I was experiencing secondary trauma, until during one of our debriefing sessions that I noticed I showed symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
While those who work directly with survivors understand the significance of mental health services for survivors, most give far less attention to their own mental wellbeing.
The daily stresses of the job are commonly overshadowed by the mission. For example, as HAART staff attest, direct service work is filled with uncertainties. “One-minute a survivor is okay, the next they are having suicidal ideation. You never know when you will receive a call for a rescue.” There is comfort in predictability. And uncertainty, especially when it is a constant, can create anxiety. But treating that anxiety is rarely top of mind when a survivor in your program is battling suicidal thoughts.
That anxiety is often exacerbated by an organization’s own limitations. There is only so much any one can do. HAART works with survivors to understand their needs and then tries to balance that with what the organization can provide.
While HAART provides counseling, training, economic assistance, school fees, health services, and legal aid to survivors, funds for victim assistance are very limited.
Staff often have to prioritize what kind of assistance to provide despite wanting to do more. And that too can be draining.
When these are your typical workday challenges- when hearing trafficking experiences recounted and watching the struggles of recovery is “just another day at the office,” mental health support must similarly be part of the job. At HAART, it is.
It’s quite admirable really to see how much emphasis HAART puts on staff mental wellbeing. Several years ago, after realizing that staff burnout was not tied to case load but to the nature of the work, HAART committed to doing more to make sure its staff were taking care of themselves, mentally and emotionally. They began small- organizing all staff hiking trips, moving office meetings outdoors, practicing yoga together. And, like all good practitioners, they listened to feedback and adapted to do better.
Since then, HAART has added two full-time mental health professionals to its team.
These professionals engage staff in group sessions, including weekly departmental-level check-ins, and provide one-on-one support for any staff who want it. There is no limit to how many sessions staff can access. Managers too keep regular meetings with their staff. Even when there’s not much to discuss, the check-ins say a lot. The opportunity to chat with a supervisor not just about work but about life helps staff “feel valued.”
Mental health is not just a focus at the top, though advice to take time off and turn off after work hours has certainly helped foster that culture. Staff have their own self-care routines; they journal, they swim, they meditate, some even make dance videos. But what’s more, particularly for the protection team, they each have an accountability partner- a person who holds them accountable for making sure self-care remains a priority.
It’s human life, and that’s a feeling of responsibility that doesn’t end with the work day.
Of course, there are times when even an accountability partner is not enough. And those days when it seems impossible to abide the best-laid guidance for mental wellbeing. As HAART staff are always aware, “it’s human life,” and that’s a feeling of responsibility that doesn’t end with the work day.
However, staff are more aware of the benefits of taking care of self- a consequence of embedding mental health in HAART’s workplace culture. Morale is higher, productivity is greater. Decision-making is easier. Knowing that the work requires quick response and that those responses impact the lives of survivors, staff report they are able to make decisions with more clarity and confidence. All of that matters, not just for staff but for all those they work with. And that is why HAART continues to prioritize mental health, for as they frequently remind each other, “You cannot give from an empty cup.”