Humanitarian work + psychology

Recently I received a letter from someone who is studying psychology. She said:

“I have always hoped to find a way to combine my passion for community development work and psychology. I was wondering if would be able to tell me what your pathway was getting into the work you have done, and whether you have any contacts or suggestions of ways I might be able to gain an internship next year?”

During the last seven years I have been asked something along these lines fairly frequently by students and by interviewers. So, I’ve pulled up some of the interviews and brushed off my answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Useful links lists are at the top, and my story is down below.

Thanks for dropping by,

I’m looking for a job in humanitarian work, what are some websites I should look at?

Have a look at the following articles and handbooks:

Have a look at the following job search forums:

  • ReliefWeb: The UN humanitarian hub, is one of the most-used sites for jobs in humanitarian relief with international agencies and NGOs.
  • AlertNet: Has a good jobs section.
  • InterAction: Is an alliance of US-based international development and humanitarian NGOs.  There is a jobs link on their home page.
  • UNjobs: Lists jobs in UN agencies and other international organizations.
  • The University of Sussex has a long list of websites relevant to jobs in international development.
  • DevJobs : An Internet service that provides international job announcements in various development fields.

I have a list about a page and a half long of relevant job search sites. If you’d like the full list, email me at and let me know you’d like the job search resource list

I’m looking for information on staff care and humanitarian work, what websites should I visit?

Have a look at the websites of the following organizations:

  • The Headington Institute: Make sure you visit the Online Training Program and the Links pages.
  • Idealist: Presents many resources for pre-deployment, in the field, and re-entry.
  • Member Care Associates: Focused primarily on supporting missionaries, this site has many good resources and a bunch of great links.
  • Antares: Here you can find the Antares Guidelines for Good Practice and some podcasts on stress management for emergency responders.
  • The Center for Humanitarian Psychology: Here you can find some interesting video clips.
  • InterAction: Here you can find September 2008 special issue of Monday Developments that focused on staff care
  • People In Aid: This NGO focuses on organizational effectiveness within the humanitarian and development sector worldwide by advocating, supporting and recognizing good practice in the management of people. There are many HR and management resources on their site.
  • InterHealth: This NGO provides medical, psychological, and occupational health services for humanitarian workers.
  • Satori Worldwide: Satori is based in Bali and provides restorative and fun retreats for international aid workers and expatriate families.

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?

After I graduated with my masters in forensic psychology I moved to the Philippines for four months (read: moved back in with Mum and Dad who, conveniently for me, just happened to be living in Manila). I lived with them while 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 (here I must pause again to thank my parents for organizing for me to born in Canada, therefore providing me with the Canadian passport that made this possible).

CANADEM farmed out my resume to several humanitarian organizations and 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.) So at 25 years old, on twelve days notice, I packed up and moved to Zagreb.

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

My contract in Croatia ended after six months and the organization didn’t have budget to keep me on in a more permanent position (though, even if they had, I doubt they would have hired a stress management trainer as a full time position). So I returned to Australia and took a position with the state children’s commission for 6 months. I worked with them on a child death review team, and then on risk assessment cases dealing with child sex offenders (there’s that forensics, coming in handy again).

But by this time I knew that I really did want to work in humanitarian field, and I also knew some further training in peace studies or international relations or conflict resolution would help, so I started looking for programs. 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. So off to school (again) I went at twenty-six.

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 incredibly 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 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 even finished my degree at Notre Dame. I stayed with them 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.

4 responses to “Humanitarian work + psychology

  1. Pingback: Humanitarian work, psychology, and staff support | Wandering. Wondering. Writing.

  2. Dr louise Fisher

    great information thank you x

  3. Lisa,

    I received your contact information from Pieter van der Meer. I will certainly take a look at the resources posted on your website regarding working overseas. I am a clinical psychologist also on a parenting journey with my wife Carmen and our five bundles of joy: Aidan (girl 12), and Sam (10), Noah (to be 8), Matthias (4), and Seth (2). We added a puppy to the mix in the fall just to make sure we lose a few more marbles. We are a homeschooling family and a family of faith. We are just venturing down the road of making contacts abroad to investigate the possibility of living and working overseas. We are open to going to a variety of places for a one to two year period. I am hoping to work in some capacity with either nationals or with ex-pats/ member care. If you know of any agencies that have vacancies or might be open to having someone come in to practice that would be most helpful. While I am looking to be compensated it could be done creatively through accommodations, transportation, and a small living allowance rather than salary. I look forward to talking with you further about possibilities.



  4. Pingback: Humanitarian work, psychology, and staff support | LisaMcKayWriting

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