United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions are effective at observing conflicts, keeping peace in regions, preventing further outbreaks of violence, and averting and/or halting genocide. It is evident that peacekeepers try their best to serve their mandates and beyond during their missions. However, during their service, the physical and mental health of peacekeepers are in jeopardy. Despite the physical and mental health of UN peacekeepers being a known issue, researchers have a difficult time studying the phenomenon because data crucial to analyzing the problem are unavailable.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) stands out among UN peace operations for the sudden turn of events from simmering conflicts to erupting genocide. Since the change of events was unpredictable, there were not only countless civilian casualties but also the deaths and injuries of peacekeepers. The UN Security Council duly voted not to augment UNAMIR but to scale it down. As the killing intensified, UN troops scrambled to leave the Rwandan capital, Kigali. Many peacekeepers from the war in Rwanda continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the most common mental illness that UNAMIR peacekeepers suffer from. Other mental health consequences include anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, drug overdose, and suicide. Some peacekeepers may develop these conditions during or after missions. Among Canadian peacekeepers engaged in the Rwandan Genocide, “the memories are intertwined with continuing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Major Brent Beardsley, who was directly involved in the Rwandan genocide, did not exhibit post-trauma symptoms until after the mission ended. It was not until when he was teaching a course in military support training that he started to notice that something was off. He realized that he had “trouble concentrating, trouble sleeping, and he became moody.” He recalled that “the scenarios became a little too realistic to bear. […] today, he recognizes his triggers- things such as strong body odour, bloody meat or big crowds- and avoids them.”
There are stigmas surrounding mental health issues that peacekeepers must overcome in order to talk about their traumatic experiences and to seek professional help
Not all missions cause as much trauma for peacekeepers as UNAMIR. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights was established in order to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. After several conflicts between these two countries, Israel passed a law that claims the Golan Heights is officially part of Israel. The United Nations Security Council voided the claim and ever since then, no progress has been made between Israel and Syria. Among the deployed peacekeepers were Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF). What is unusual about this peacekeeping mission is that before the peacekeepers were deployed to the Golan Heights, they were provided with mental health education and familial support. This is not to say that mental stressors were completely absent. JSDF troops described that they felt anxious because they could not help with familial situations back in Japan or in situations where they had to interact and cooperate with peacekeepers from different countries. Hence, even if a peacekeeping mission is neither high-intensity nor in a high-threat environment, war affects the mental health of peacekeepers nonetheless. However, the level of intensity and threat during peacekeeping missions do have varying degrees of effect on troops’ mental health. For a developed country like the United States, there are mental health care services such as Veteran Affairs (VA) Healthcare Systems. However, even with existing healthcare services, decommissioned peacekeepers do not utilize the service often. One of the reasons is social stigma.
There are stigmas surrounding mental health issues that peacekeepers must overcome in order to talk about their traumatic experiences and to seek professional help. This is especially prevalent in military settings where military personnel tend to deny they have mental illnesses. One of the fears stem from the fact that declaring a mental illness might become a career hindrance. In addition to this barrier, there is a discrepancy in access to mental health institutions between developed and developing countries. Developing countries contribute the majority of troops to UN peacekeeping missions, which means most UN peacekeepers do not have access to adequate mental health care systems. On the other hand, developed countries do contribute peacekeepers but at comparatively low rates and are more involved in funding the peacekeeping mission. Moreover, there is ongoing criticism about inserting and emphasizing Western perspectives and definitions of illnesses and cures in non-Western countries. This diminishes the value of cultural strengths and resilience and specific treatments or cures that certain culture practices. This is concerning because this structure of developing countries and developed countries resembles imperialism.
On top of strengthening mental health care systems, countries should devise plans to defeat stigmas against mental health. The change of public perception of mental health and healthcare overall is clearly a long-term goal, but this struggle is worth fighting for. The world’s perception of what is considered ‘healthy’ is shifting. Health encompasses not only the physical component but the mental aspect. It is imperative that troop-contributing countries (TCC) devise sustainable and effective mental healthcare systems for their citizens but also for their peacekeepers. Policymakers in TCC must create plans to shift their cultures away from stigmatizing discussion of and the pursuit of mental healthcare. For example, Bangladesh, one of the top TCC, has a “coordinating body to oversee public education and awareness campaign on mental health and mental disorders” to create awareness for the general population. In addition to adopting policies to change cultural perceptions of mental health care, governments must invest in building mental healthcare infrastructure, such as clinics and hospitals, needed for treating mental illness and cultivating a nation’s psychological well-being. It is only when these two changes are adopted that peacekeepers will be able to receive the mental health care they deserve.
Young Hyun Lily Joo is a second-year graduate candidate in the Master of Arts International Affairs program, concentrating in International Security Studies in East Asia. Before starting her Master’s program, she received her Bachelor of Arts in International Studies, concentrating in Political Science, and minor in Theatre from the University of California San Diego. While completing her Master’s program, Lily accumulated experiences by interning at the American Enterprise Institute as a Global Security Intern and at the Wilson Center as a Research Assistant Intern. She is also serving as a Research Committee Member of the Sejong Society of Washington D.C.
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