‘We are all living in an alert state of mind’

Kabul, November 2016. For many, working in a mission—usually in far-off countries—is an opportunity to do meaningful work in an international environment. Such work often comes with a unique set of circumstances however, as is the case for EUPOL, not least when it comes to matters of well-being.

Carmen Mihai has worked as a staff counsellor for the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL) for the past two years. She talks about the realities of working in a high-risk environment such as Kabul.

What can you tell us about your work?

I provide psychological assistance to mission members, which is especially important whenever we have to deal with critical incidents. I also coordinate the peer support program for volunteers – mission members who are trained in providing basic psychological support to their colleagues.

In what ways does working in Kabul differ from professional life elsewhere?

It is different primarily because the security situation is volatile. We are all living in an alert state of mind—something bad might happen at any time—so stress levels tend to be higher here. Besides, living in a closed and small compound, with restrictions on freedom of movement has an impact on our stress response. Stress reactions are altered because the normality of our reality is distorted; we are on survival mode all the time, which means that we need to use a set of different coping mechanisms in order to properly function and perform. Moreover, the social support system of family and friends which we would have at hand back home is missing.

How does that affect mission members?

It is important to understand that we all come to the mission with a personal history and personal experiences; if we are not paying attention to the signs and symptoms of stress or if we are trying to avoid them, we can easily develop psychological disorders.

How does stress manifest itself?

Some people might become easily irritable, others may withdraw or isolate themselves, sleeping disorders and a lack of appetite are additionally not uncommon.

Any typical coping mechanisms?

It is said that the people who come here are mentally prepared – I would say that is not entirely true – they might have knowledge about the mission but not the personal experience to live and work in a high-risk environment. It is only after you have perceived the threat that you can know if it will change you, and in what way. Some will recognise that something changed in them or deny any kind of change, others will evolve to what is called personal growth. It depends on the personal filter of every mission member.

What can you, as a staff counsellor, do to alleviate stress among mission members?

All of us have our internal personal resources. My role is to provide guidance on activating these internal resources in dealing with stressful situations. I have to adapt the psychological assistance to the values system, beliefs, personal history and culture of mission members. We have created counselling groups for personal development for all mission members: to improve communication skills, self-esteem, assertiveness and stress management among others.

I strongly believe that every organisation should have a staff counselor, regardless of whether it operates in a normal or hostile environment. Anything could cause stress in a workplace and if left unchecked, accumulated stress can have a serious negative impact on the well-being of personnel, but this is particularly important here at EUPOL.

How would you describe your work in Kabul?

It is rewarding and exceptional because I witness progress in the lives of my clients every day. I have grown professionally as a result of having the experience of the cases here. I am the first and only staff counselor the mission has ever had and I am proud to have had this amazing opportunity.

Living in a small compound can be a barrier however as some people may feel reluctant to open up. This could also have something to do with the fact that some people still confuse a psychologist with a psychiatrist. The fact that Western therapeutic methods are not developed for a collectivist culture such as Afghan society, but rather focus on the individual, has posed challenges in dealing with our national colleagues.

What advice would you give to people working in a high-risk environment?

To maintain contact with their support system. To keep their bodies healthy through regular exercise as well as engaging in stimulating activities and to definitely ask for help when they start to feel the first symptoms of stress.