top of page

The background and the rationale for post-trauma and burnout rehabilitation

and psychosocial education of social justice and human rights defenders (SJHRDs)

Yana Ziferblat, MA, psychosocial consultant, director of Flow - Integral Change Center


We also are deeply grateful to Esther Rapoport, PsyD, clinical psychologist,  Psychoactive - Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights; Olga Belskaya, Program officer, People in Need; Elena German, psychologist, ToT, leads burn out recovery workshops for HRDs and activists in CIS; Yevgeny Belyakov,Program Officer, Prague Civil Society Center; Karla Kutkova, PHD in Political sciences, civil society consultant; Yuri Frank, SJ and LGBT activist, coordinator of work with transgender community, NGO Insight, Ukraine, took part in psycho-social programs and consulted on the desired content; Shannon Woodcock, PHD, Political Sciences, community development expert, Australia; Kseniya Kirichenko, HRD, lawyer, Russia, took part in psycho-social ToTs for HRDs and others.



Background information:


Strong human rights communities and social change movements are among the biggest achievements of the past hundred years and have become central actors within the preservation and promotion of human rights and dignity worldwide. This history was made by engaged defenders and change makers, leading communities and societies and standing up to oppression and injustices, frequently at a great personal cost. The 21th century has seen a wave of major social transformations, in which defenders from all over the world played a crucial role, guarding previous achievements and opening new ways for progressive development.


However, over the past years, we have witnessed the strengthening structural pressure against social justice and human rights defenders (hereafter abbreviated as SJHRDs) worldwide.  In fact today, an increasingly significant part of human rights and social change work is done in extreme psycho-social conditions, which include constant pressure, surveillance, threats and direct and vicarious traumatization. At the same time, many SJHRDs work under multiple forms of discrimination: as refugees, LGBT people, women, ethnic and racial minorities and others. In an atmosphere of intimidation, the pressure from their closest surroundings also increases. All of the above leads to increase in burnout and post-traumatic states among the SJHRD.


Post-traumatic and burnout states are often a tabooed subject for the HRDs and activists working with vulnerable groups, as they often consider themselves to be obliged to be “strong” and "fireproof". Yet constant exposure to direct and secondary violence, grief and social challenges lead to chronic stress and deterioration of emotional and physical health. This process is aggravated by a constant exposure to social media and public eye, gradually leading to chronic states.


In this document, we will elaborate on the importance of making burnout and post-traumatic rehabilitation resources widely available to SJHRDs. We will also argue for increasing the availability of psychosocial education, in order to support individuals and communities in moving from a pattern of everyday survival to impact-oriented action. Finally, we will lay out the arguments for incorporating psychological education, including burnout and post-trauma informed capacity building, into social justice and human rights activities and projects.

The arguments below are based on available literature and interviews with SJHRDs as well as letters of application and feedback letters from rehabilitation and psychosocial courses held by Flow-Integral Change Center and People in Need, between 2012-2016.


Causes of burnout and post-traumatic states among SJHRDs and activists:


  • Ever-growing workloads

  • Unavailability and instability of resources

  • Lack of control over circumstances while being accountable towards their communities

  • Constant pressure, surveillance, threats

  • Direct traumatization

  • Overwhelming amount of micromanagement, crisis management and response-based management

  • Frequent lack of social influence and immediate results

  • Minimal or no reward

  • Gradual depletion of personal, family and community resources

  • Empathy exhaustion caused by immense emotional investments and lack of personal boundary protection mechanisms

  • Constant exposure to direct and secondary societal violence, human grief and social challenges

  • Feelings of isolation and disrespect

  • Ongoing conflicts between values and motivations and the practicalities of everyday work

  • Lack of appreciation and constant dealing with distrust from both stakeholders and wider society

  • Vicarious traumatization

  • Constant influx of negative and painful information from social media, inability to control the influx due to the nature of the SJHRDs’ and activists’ work

  • Organizational culture dissuading SJHRDs and activists from attending to their own well-being, glorifying self- sacrifice as the sole way to be “good” activist

  • Chronic stress

  • Individual trauma history, childhood and adult trauma

  • Individual political and social trauma



Burnout and post-trauma symptoms, even at a mild level, reduce the adaptational resources of individuals, impairing the ability to plan and manage resources and conduct risk management and strategic planning. A burnt-out individual becomes less empathetic, more cynical, critical, irritable and impatient. People suffering from this condition may need to force themselves to perform their duties, as they begin lacking intrinsic motivation and energy, experience despair and emotional detachment and cannot easily feel satisfied with their achievements. In post-traumatic states, the person tends to experience increased anxiety and emotional arousal, loss of interest in activities and life in general, feelings of detachment from others and emotionally numbness, sense of a limited future, difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”), feeling jumpy and easily startled and more. As chronic conditions, burnout and post-trauma states and especially the presence of the two at the same time, can cause continuous deterioration of physical health, starting with several psychosomatic effects and symptoms like chronic insomnia and headaches, and leading to serious health condition like hormonal disbalances, strokes and heart diseases. Post-trauma and burnout can also lead to severe emotional and mental health challenges including alcohol and drug addiction, chronic depression,  persistent anxiety, and panic attacks.


A variety of factors contribute to the state of burnout and post-trauma of SJHRDs regionally. In the post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe, where Flow - Center for Integral Change and People in Need have a significant experience, SJHRDs:


- often do not have experience in accessing psychological help and understanding the necessity of psychological intervention;

- are frequently not aware of the traumatic impact of violence and do not seek help ("everybody lives in the same way");

- do not have sufficient experience of introspection and reflection, no practice of taking time and space for it;

- do not have access to professional psychologists who are competent to provide specialized support. in the specialized support of human rights defenders and minorities,  lack training for skilled intervention (that further leads to the need for such training of specialists);

- lack access to already available psychological services, including for economic reasons.



Difficulties that SJHRDs face when in burnout and post-trauma states.


Integrated security-related arguments:


  • Increased risk for the individual and the organization, due to decreased ability to plan and act in safe ways;

  • When in burnout and post-traumatic stress, the individual’s efficiency in following security protocols decreases significantly, this in its turn increases the risk to the organization;

  • The lack of inner resources reduces those dedicated to security-related training. New people coming into the organization are often not made aware of the threats to their security or ways of protecting themselves,  they do not know who to ask for help, and are afraid to seem unprofessional when asking questions;

  • The burnout of staff and volunteers of the organization increases human turnover, which in its turn increases risks of introduction of government’ infiltrators and information leaks;

  • People with a high level of burnout and post-trauma are prone to hastier reactions, which can lead to unsafe behaviors driven by immediate emotional state. This in its turn increases the risk of attacks, beatings, and verbal abuse;

  • SJHRDs suffering burnout has only enough resources to focus on their own and the closest difficulties. As a result, managers and directors find it harder to assess the level of danger for third parties and may not have space and attention to consider the risks for their clients, whom they are supposed to represent and protect;

  • Burnout of the organization leaders is especially dangerous as they may fail to monitor the processes and organizational changes in the field outside the organization, resulting in increased levels of danger for themselves, employees and the target groups;

  • Constant fatigue leads to delaying important preventive and protective measures. For example, even if a state auditor is about to visit an organization targeted for persecution, the employees can delay organizing the documents and information, postponing it to the last moment;

  • Because of chronic fatigue and scarcity of resources, the SJHRDs with burnout and post-traumatic stress have a diminished capacity for maintaining social relationships, including with their own families and closest friends. This diminished capacity influences both security and quality of SJHRD work directly, leaving them even more vulnerable within the shrinking civil society space.



Effectiveness, capacity building, and impact related arguments:


  • When in burnout and post-traumatic states, there is a shift from strategic planning to reaction-based activity. SJHRDs affected by these states experience difficulties in setting priorities and strategic planning because they are focused on dealing with constant stress and traumatic situations at hand and they do not have the capacity to return to an overarching vision of the long-term goals and objectives of the organisation;

  • A person suffering burnout and post-traumatic stress is less able to delegate responsibilities. Failure to share the workload in crises and emergency situations leads to decreased social impact;

  • Daily and/or exceptional risks can be either underestimated or overestimated. For instance, a regular audit can set off a panic reaction leading to such a level of fear and stress that the organization may decide to shut down without good reason. The organization’s leaders might also ignore relevant risk factors due to decreased emotional resources. Timely changes to organizational structures and forms of work can be postponed, diminishing possible social impact;

  • Burnout and post-traumatic states profoundly increase conflicts within organizations and movements. When members of the organization are engrossed in interpersonal conflict, they can often no longer fulfill the obligations they have assumed due to escalating aggression within the team and among different teams;

  • When there is burnout within the team, the turnover of specialists increases. Experienced professionals leave, unable to bear the load, and also because their performance is reduced due to lack of resources. This has an exceptionally heavy effect within the SJHRDs field. Each professional member of the human rights and social justice organizations and movements has unique expert knowledge formed by years of specified training and experience. Losing an SJHRD expert is tantamount to losing a valuable asset;

  • Burnout and post-trauma lead people to set unrealistic goals and plan unrealizable projects;

  • 'Be the change that you wish to see in the world.'  said Mahatma Gandhi.  Unfortunately, burnout and post-traumatic states frequently lead to behaviors and relational difficulties within social change and human rights communities which are contrary to SJHRD’ own beliefs and values. This has a harmful effect both on the SJHRD themselves and their ability to mobilize new human resources;

  • Burnout leads to a reduction of empathy and lack of resources for full emotional contact - ultimately reducing the quality of social change work and services provided;

  • In stress and burnout, it is more difficult to mobilize existing resources and to attract new people to the organization. This leads to difficulties obtaining reinforcement or finding new or creative solutions to problems, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of trauma and stress. The inflow of new human resources into SJHRDs’ field heavily depends on an ability to attract and retain the new cadres via personal contact and emotional engagement;

  • “Revolutions are made by idealists and used by abusers” - a Russian saying goes. Frequently progressive forces that drive major social transformations, like in the example of the Arab spring, exhaust their human resources and become too tired right after the change has been made. This leaves the changing political arenas prey to much less progressive forces who were not at the frontlines, and sometimes prepares the ground for the former regime or an even more tyrannical one to gain power. Availability of post-trauma and burn out support for the SJHRDs in these contexts can help change national and regional histories.



Arguments for providing holistic trauma and burnout informed capacity to support as well as integrated psycho-social education to SJHRD.


Most SJHRDs possess sufficient knowledge in sociology, political sciences and alike, however for majority any significant knowledge of individual and social psychological processes is lacking, so as the understanding of connections among the social and psychological fields of thought. However, an experience shows that psycho-social education can increase the impact of SJHRDs work dramatically and should be considered as a necessary part of social change work.


Proposed model for psycho-social education meant to increase the ability of SJHRDs for intersectional analyses of knowledge and information between the disciplines of sociology, political sciences, gender, human rights, history, philosophy and psychology and to contribute to a more effective and profound social change.


Below are the themes that shall be included in such education:


  • Addressing direct trauma and vicarious trauma in HRDs work, including the possibility of evaluating the adequacy of the client, and ability to predict future behavior;

  • Education in conflict management and transformation;

  • Social psychology,  psychology of collectives and masses;

  • Learning tools to create a supportive and open atmosphere in the organization- the one in which people will be able to speak openly about their difficulties, fatigue, burnout and get help at an earlier stage;

  • Providing a base for further independent studies in fields of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history;

  • Education in risk assessment and strategic planning;

  • Learning to set boundaries, learning to plan and manage one’s own resources and time;

  • Psychosocial courses can help to reintegrate into the HRDs work those HRDs who had to leave the country of origin due to persecution, easing the emigration and adaptation process;

  • Psychosocial courses shall teach ways to recognize, acknowledge and discuss burnout and trauma, reducing the shame associated with the recognition of burnout, inability to recognize and acknowledge the traumatic condition. This training will have effects beyond the particular participants by positively impacting other human rights defenders;

  • Many human rights defenders and activists, such as in Russia work in the spread of subliminal technologies and need training to enable them to recognize and counter such technologies.


Additional desired outcomes of psychosocial trainings for community empowerment and development:


  • Preventing destruction and degeneration of organizations;

  • Providing education in community based self-help and support to ensure that long-term practices incorporated within organizational structures;

  • Establishing a comfortable informal environment among like-minded persons, building trust within the field;

  • Contributing significantly to the reduction of conflicts between organizations and within teams;

  • Increasing awareness of the non-material resources available to individuals and organizations and their usage in everyday work.



Additional desired outcomes of psychosocial trainings for individual empowerment and development:


  • Getting engaged in active realization of one’s potential;

  • Engaging in developing one's talents and long postponed plans;

  • Lifestyle changes- moving to healthy eating, quitting drinking, quitting smoking;

  • Reduction of violence directed towards the individual;

  • Ability to manage personal and political conflicts more effectively;

  • Increased social capacity, ability to create stronger and more authentic connections;

  • Increased physical health, increased ability for dedicated care of one’s body;

  • Increased ability to set boundaries and engage in strategic planning;

  • Emotional stability and personal growth.


…..and as our guests in psychosocial programs tell -


ability to dream again, feel the nature and being one with it, remembering and deciding on what's important in one’s life, getting back to one’s values and goals, being able to feel joy and Love again, and to Laugh.


‘Now I feel at peace. I have Peace in my soul.’

Toma, HRD, Ukraine (Flow)

bottom of page