Greetings. I am delighted to accept the invitation to pen a few thoughts about the emotional experience of return from volunteer work overseas. For some volunteers, the re-entry or homecoming phase of a deployment is often more challenging and stressful than the deployment itself (and did you know that the pre-departure phase is often more stressful than the deployment as well?) My own experiences of return from relatively brief stints in Namibia, Haiti and the Antarctic confirmed that homecoming is not easy.
It has been a privilege to conduct re-entry 'wellbeing checks' as a psychologist since the late 1980s. These mental health debriefs have been with people from groups and organisations like CARE Australia, the Australian Civilian Corps, the Australian Antarctic Division, the Australian Defence Force, and DFAT's Crisis Response Teams. Let's explore a few of the key themes that typically emerge from these chats.
Deployment overseas can be profoundly affecting, particularly in circumstances of crisis, unrest or desperate need. You may have experienced both the best and the worst of humanity. It is not surprising then that your values may be challenged. However, due to the busyness of deployment, we may not address the process of reassessing our values until return to Australia. An NGO worker who returned from rural Africa to Canberra at Christmas time confided how she was overwhelmed (and repelled) by the materialism on display.
As part of the re-entry process, I would encourage you to sit down and consider what you value in your life – and ask whether your values and your behaviour are consistent and mutually reinforcing. There are several 'values clarification assessments' available online – or you can request the version we use in the Staff and Family Support Office (firstname.lastname@example.org). Doing this activity with a loved one can make it even more worthwhile.
Reconnection with family and friends is another, complex theme of re-entry. The challenge of relinking may be due to a range of issues, for example, the perception of different life trajectories/velocities (your friends may appear stuck in a time warp), changes in roles and routines in the home (particularly in partners and teenage children), and your own personal development that may foster new perspectives and opportunities.
The perennial chestnut of re-entry is perhaps the wisdom to take things slowly, to resist major decisions about work and lifestyle, and to appreciate that it is sensible to allow at least six months to regain a sense of belonging and satisfaction with your 'pre-departure life.' There are many resources available about homecoming, such as the ADF guide [PDF 71 KB], that you might peruse.
If your deployment was emotionally charged or challenging, you are encouraged to undertake some sort of 'wellbeing check' – preferably with a mental health professional. There is a very useful – and free – Professional Quality of Life Scale self-assessment that measures the negative and positive impacts (compassion satisfaction, burnout, compassion fatigue) of helping others in contexts of suffering and trauma.
Most importantly, if someone you love or respect tells you that they are concerned about how you are adjusting to life after deployment, please take them seriously. Put your hand up and actively seek support. The beyondblue website is an excellent starting point for getting support.
Dr Peter Murphy, FAPS
Principal Psychologist, DFAT