Dr Juliet Donald: a psychologist supporting the wellbeing of aid workers

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Dr Juliet Donald is a professional story listener and observer. Her patients share their stories through words and body languages. She’s a registered clinical psychologist in Toronto. Moving to Canada from Sydney, Juliet works in a private practice and international humanitarian medical non-governmental organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), taking care of staff’s mental wellbeing.

“My motto is ‘healthy staff equals health projects,’ Juliet says. Juliet gets involved with MSF because she’s drawn to its vision. The work in humanitarian aid organisation is not static, and often challenging, and so does the psychological impact it has on staff which evolves based on different circumstances.  And Juliet’s role is an integral part of the organisation to keep it moving forward in a healthy way.

Working as a psychologist comes with unimaginable and unthinkable. “Some of the surprising challenges for field workers is the reintegration process. Coming home can be one of the harder parts of the assignment, and that re-adaptation to home life can require focused effort and professional support.”

A graduate from the University of Sydney and a registered psychologist in Canada, Juliet has shifted her role for once as a story teller and shared her professional journey with Advance.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications & Digital Manager, Advance.

Can you tell us your role and what you do?

I am a registered clinical psychologist in Toronto. I balance my time between a private practice at Restore Integrative Health, on the East side of the city, and working with Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders in Canada, running the PsychoSocial Care Unit for staff health. With MSF, I work both domestically in Canada and in international locations, which have included Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Libya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What is the most interesting part of psychology?

The field of psychology is in constant growth. Research continues to uncover new findings, and as a clinician, this means new clinical applications. When working clinically, no two days are the same, and each person has their own important and unique story.

Can you share any interesting psychological facts that explain why we are the way we are?

Being a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy trained clinician, my work focusses on the link between thoughts and emotions. While we can feel that it is situations that lead to our emotional reaction, it is actually our thoughts about the situation that determine our feelings. I use this principle in my work around the world. Changing the way we view any situation can then change the impact it has on us.

How social media is affecting our mental health, in both positive and negative senses?

Social Media can be a wonderful way to connect with family and friends from around the world. It can help to close the sense of distance and help stay updated with each other’s lives. When used well, social media can reduce loneliness and the sense of isolation that can come with working overseas. The down can be that social media may become a replacement for making connections where you are. While investing time in staying in touch with loved ones elsewhere, also be cognisant of investing time and energy to create connections in the place you currently are. Balance is important in helping create positive mental health when using social media.

What are the most common mental health issues facing humanitarian aid workers? What draws your interest to work for MSF?

I joined MSF as a field worker myself and ran psychological programs for beneficiaries in conflict and post conflict contexts. Over time, I was drawn to the staff health side of humanitarian aid work. My motto is “healthy staff equals health projects”. I provide psychological support to Canadian field workers pre and post assignment, and visit projects directly to provide in house support to international and national staff teams. I strongly believe in the principles of MSF and the humanitarian relief it provides. It is an organisation I feel immense pride in being part of. Finding value and meaning the work helps to overcome some of the inherent challenges that comes with the work. For international staff, being away from loved ones is a common challenge. In the field, the usual supports and ways of coping with stress may not be available. I train field staff on building field adapted coping resources, and managing their stress to foster resiliency in such challenging contexts. Some of the surprising challenges for field workers is the reintegration process. Coming home can be one of the harder parts of the assignment, and that re-adaptation to home life can require focused effort and professional support.

What’s the best and worst thing about working abroad?

The best part about working aboard is the people! I am fortunate to have a career that allows me to meet amazing individuals from around the world, from beneficiaries to National staff and expatriate colleagues from around the world.

Some of the hardest parts about working aboard is being away from my wife and children. In addition to usual field challenges like battling illness, difficult living conditions and local insecurity.

Could you share with us the best way to experience the real Toronto that tourists often miss?

Toronto Island in the summer is a real joy. I recommend taking the ferry to the Island with a bike and exploring the beaches, restaurants and quiet spots. My kids also love the Centreville amusement park, which makes for a fun family day out.

What do you miss most about Australia?

The beaches! Growing up at Bronte beach and the ocean is very much part of me. I seek it out everywhere I go. And of course my family and friends back in Australia. It is very important to me that my kids learn about Australia and maintain a connection with relatives and the country.