For the first time ever, psychologists employed by the Brazilian Air Force have been sent to a United Nations peacekeeping mission overseas in order to identify and understand the stresses that affect troops doing this kind of work.
Last December, a team from the Air Force Psychology Institute (IPA) shadowed a Brazilian infantry battalion from Manaus that had been deployed to Port-au-Prince as part of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The objective: to improve the training of soldiers sent on similar missions in the future.
“It was a unique professional experience,” said Lt. Fabrícia Barros de Souza, a psychologist. “Our soldiers were very receptive, and contributed in a meaningful way to the data collection. They all showed they are highly qualified and mission-driven professionals.”
The Brazilian Air Force offers air support to the Brazilian contingent within MINUSTAH and more recently has begun deploying infantry troops. The first infantry units arrived in February 2011 from the northeastern Brazilian cities of Recife, Natal and Fortaleza, but were later replaced by the platoon from Manaus, which remained until the end of April.
“We believe it is of that upmost importance that, along with technical and operational excellence, we consider and constantly monitor the psychosocial aspects involved in a mission of this nature,” said Maj. Luis Felipe, an Air Force spokesman.
The aim is to ensure that Brazilian troops — which have been in Haiti since 2004 — perform effectively without any harm to their safety and occupational health.
The first contingent of Air Force troops deployed to Haiti underwent psychological assessments to determine if any had personal or family-related problems that could cause problems during or after the mission.
“The project addresses the issue of stress in peace operations, as a specific part of the daily work of the Brazilian military,” explained Felipe. “Since this monitoring requires a feedback loop, we included a study of professional profiles and a survey of stressors, which would provide legitimacy to the work done with each new soldier.”
Lt. Col. Ana Lúcia Lopez, deputy director of the Air Force Psychology Institute, helped her team conduct individual and group interviews, lectures and videoconferences; team members also participated in the daily routines of the soldiers they observed.
“The work routine was intense and its results represent only the beginning of a bold venture that seeks to gain visibility for the role of psychology in the operational realm,” said Barros de Souza.
Sources of stress
Perhaps because these soldiers are not fighting a full-fledged war, it’s easy to underestimate the many sources of stress peacekeepers face, and the long-term effects of that stress. These include being away from the family, living in a different culture and the local conflicts that characterize these kinds of mission.
In Haiti, this stress is exacerbated by the extremely poor living conditions of the local population; verbal aggression from some Haitians; the risk of sickness or death from infectious diseases; vulnerability to acts of violence without the ability to respond with weapons; the lack of communication resources to keep in touch with friends and family back home, and — perhaps worst of all — an inability to significantly improve the lives of local people.
“The complexity of peace missions has also to do with placing the military in a new situation,” explained Felipe. “It is different than in traditional war, which from the psychological point of view is identified with uncertainty and the unknown.”
In this case, he said, “there is also no enemy, which turns the objective of these operations in something more complicated than merely winning. These obstacles not only compromise the performance of the mission, but affect motivation and endanger a soldier’s physical and mental health.”
The way forward
The aim of the individual and group interviews was to collect data, but Felipe said “we were at their disposal if there was a need for intervention.”
Despite limited contact with the locals, the Brazilian team left Port-au-Prince with the distinct impression that Haitians are quite receptive to MINUSTAH’s presence — especially children, who picked up the psychologists’ names in a heartbeat.
“The troops say that the smiles of those children are a motivating factor for their work and, in a way, mitigate the adverse conditions of the mission,” said Felipe.