take care of yourself
Daniel Gerstle has a fantastic post on resources for crisis workers and journalists dealing with combat stress. He shares a very personal experience to illustrate a need we all share: to take care of ourselves.
Gerstle's advice is great for researchers as well. Mental health issues often get lost in the shuffle of graduate school, grant applications, and fieldwork adventures. But they're important, especially if you are working in a conflict zone. That you are not directly serving war-affected populations or fighting in combat yourself does not mean you are immune to combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health issues. It's important for you and your support network to be aware of the signs of combat stress before you go into the field, and to keep an eye on your mental health while you're there and when you return.
Fieldwork can be an isolating experience. You have to work to maintain connections with the people who care about you. Letting them know about the particular stresses you may face before you go is a great way to keep from becoming too isolated.
There's no shame in being affected by the things you see in a war zone, and being moved by the plight of war victims doesn't mean that you revoke your status as an impartial observer. After witnessing the horrific violence perpetrated against women and girls in the eastern Congo, I found it useful to channel some of that horror into advocating for an organization that helps them. I talked with family and friends about it and spoke to a few community groups who had heard about the situation and wanted to help.
If you suspect you might be experiencing some of the effects of combat stress or a related issue, the best thing you can do is to see a mental health professional. Most universities have counseling services available, and they're often free or inexpensive for graduate students. Take advantage of those services. Not dealing with fieldwork-related stress will distract you from the task at hand. It's best to get help sooner rather than later so you can finish up and get on with your life.
As Gerstle points out, the most helpful thing in taking care of your own mental health is having a network of friends who've shared similar experiences. I get together periodically with a small group of women who also do independent research in the eastern DRC. We find it really helpful to share stories (and a few laughs), and we look out for one another to make sure everybody's okay. Those are the kinds of connections that make it possible for all of us to continue studying and writing about the region. And all of us hope that our contributions will, in some small way, contribute to peace and stability in the years to come. That makes it worth it.