Building the foundations of resilience: 11 lessons for human rights educators and supervisors

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Teachers or managers bear a particular responsibility for fostering a culture of open communication.

Many advocates enter the human rights field with little to no training in how to mitigate the harms of exposure to trauma and or in how to foster resilience in themselves, their colleagues, and their community. Over the past few years, our human rights clinic—in which students learn how to be advocates by working on human rights investigations and advocacy—has been part of a growing community of advocates, educators, and psychologists seeking to improve well-being and how we educate the next generation of human rights advocates in sustainable and resilient advocacy. This post draws upon our shared experiences as supervisors and students and offers 11 lessons learned for those in educator or manager roles.

1. Build shared goals and strategies through participatory processes

An important step to improve an organization’s approach to mental health is to create an inclusive process for building shared commitments and strategies. In our clinic, professors and students collaboratively drafted a written policy on resilience, trauma, and well-being, which set out our values and goals and produced a series of commitments aimed at promoting positive mental health and resilient advocacy.

2. One size doesn’t fit all

Our experience, supported by scholarly research, indicates that individuals respond in varying ways to exposure to trauma; thus, risk management strategies should respond to the different needs of each advocate. Supervisors can build structures to empower each individual to identify and articulate their needs. In one year, for example, a student entered our clinic with pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Over a few months, the student moved from individual identification of the concern, to working with supervisors to understand how this might interact with human rights work, and then to designing a personal resilience plan with the supervisor, an outside psychologist, and another student.

3. Take a holistic approach

A mistake we made early on was to overly focus on the effects of “trauma exposure”, at the expense of attending to other forms of stress or harm, such as workplace stress or interpersonal conflict. To foster a more holistic approach, a student working group led a survey of other students about sources of stress, followed by discussions about recommendations, which helped us to better understand students’ experiences and priorities for response.

4. Grow peer-to-peer support networks

Peer support networks can greatly contribute to well-being, and can be protective against adverse psychological impacts from negative events. Managers and supervisors can facilitate the development of peer-to-peer support by creating programs and activities designed to foster community, trust, teamwork, and mutual support, and by making available to the peer group resources and training on peer support.

5. Focus on resilience and capacities, and celebrate wins

Strategies that focus not only on “mitigating harm”, but also on “promoting resilience and well-being” shift attention to positive tools and experiences and to existing capacities. When we prepare to undertake potentially stressful work, we now incorporate explicit individual and team reflections on likely positive experiences and sources of joy and hope. One of the most beneficial aspects of this has been learning about the myriad ways in which advocates find happiness and meaning in human rights work.

6. Create multiple channels of open communication

Teachers or managers bear a particular responsibility for fostering a culture of open communication, yet there are many barriers to students or staff feeling able to voice concerns. Creating multiple pathways for communication, and clear messaging about availability and openness around mental health issues is important. A proactive approach is key: supervisors actively check-in about mental health with students, especially when students undertake higher-risk work; others in the school without supervisory or grading responsibility also actively check-in; student peer groups host student-only debriefs; and information about how to contact outside counsellors and human rights mentors is available.

7. Invest in mentorship

Supervisors can connect their colleagues with mentors drawn from the wider global community of human rights advocates, who can share their own experiences and strategies for fostering resilience. Feeling isolated is one of the most painful elements of experiencing PTSD, depression, or anxiety, and mentors can provide an important source of bonding, normalization, and validation. One of our students shared how being mentored by several human rights advocates, all with significant experience in her field of interest, proved extremely valuable in helping her learn to deal with trauma in her work.

8. Prioritize preparation and normalization

Implementation of early, regular, and mainstreamed training and education about mental health helps to provide all students or staff with a shared baseline of knowledge and can remove stigma. We have also found it useful to pair sessions on advocates’ well-being with sessions on victim, survivor, and partner well-being and on how to minimize re-traumatization during interviews. Advocates tend to be less resistant to focusing on their own well-being if they can see how it affects their work as an advocate.

Advanced, regularized preparation before engaging in high-stress work can support the development of practices for sustainable advocacy and can help promote self-efficacy. One type of preparation we have found especially useful is integrating mental health issues into standard risk assessments. Focusing on preparation also helps send the important message that mental health and well-being are not something to only deal with when things go wrong, but can instead be positive, capacity-focused work informing everyday human rights advocacy.

9. “Do as I say, but not as I do” is a barrier to reform

Supervisor behaviour sends signals and provides models to students or staff, and sets the tone of an organization’s approach to mental health and well-being. Yet many supervisors face obstacles in attending to their own well-being and can find it difficult to facilitate emotionally difficult conversations with colleagues. It is challenging for a supervisor to discuss one’s own experiences with trauma, but this is precisely what can send a normalizing and supportive message to others. We have implemented a process in which all supervisors participate equally in risk assessments and project team reflections about sources of stress and coping strategies. Our supervisors also share with students the steps they take to promote well-being and, importantly, show those steps being taken by referring to specific instances as they occur, for example: taking time off work, engaging in physical activity, attending social events, and seeking support from a supervisor’s own mentors or peers.

10. Be accountable

As organizations create, reform, and implement approaches to enhance well-being, we need to ensure that effective mechanisms exist to oversee organizational policies and actions. After we drafted our clinic resilience policy, we piloted it over the course of a year, with a student working group leading assessment of the draft policy. The student-run committee, formed anew each academic year, ensures that students actively participate in evaluating and updating the clinic’s policy and practices on mental health, while also helping to develop their leadership skills.

11. Reflect, learn, revise, reflect…

Our field has a long way to go in promoting sustainable human rights advocacy. To improve, educators and supervisors should adopt a “teach and learn” perspective—creating space for reflection and assessment of mental health strategies, and continuously reviewing and improving methods based on lessons learned. Improvement in our field will require reflecting with others, a willingness to acknowledge and learn from mistakes or deficiencies, revising approaches in response, building a global community of advocates to learn with, and engaging in continuous learning about how to build a field of resilient human rights advocates.