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Conserving Conservationists

What can be done to better support the conservationist community to help them help the planet?

In this webinar we will hear from Brittany Sawrey and Jessie Panazzolo who will present on how we can better support conservationists, often working in remote environments, dealing with stressful and timely global issues and commonly experiencing imposter syndrome and eco-anxiety.

This webinar was organised by the IUCN NCUK’s Education and Communication working group. The webinar was chaired and introduced by Sophie Stenson, chair of the Education and Communication Working Group for the IUCN NCUK. Sophie is currently completing a PhD on sustainable governance as part of the RENEW project (Renewing Biodiversity through a people in nature approach) with the University of Exeter, with a particular interest in community action and volunteerism in conservation.

Our speakers:

Brittany Sawrey is a Licensed Associate Counsellor with the Mederi Group, working on a project in Vicarious Trauma in Conservation and has MSc in Conservation Science. She will be telling us all about the results of her fascinating study and share some psychoeducation about trauma and psychological distress and how this affects the conservation sector.

Jessie Panazzolo is Founder of Lonely Conservationists (LC) and a Sustainability Education Officer. The LC is an online conservationist community, with the following missions (…

– To ensure long term community building based on a foundation of empathy, education and empowerment

– To give a voice to passionate conservationists who are doing everything they can to enact positive change for our planet

– To actively listen to the voices of conservationists in the community to give their voices purpose and value

– To help conservationists overcome impostor syndrome by valuing them as part of a close knit community and for the work they are doing for our planet.

We hope you enjoy it!

Mental Health Support Links:

If you would like to reach out to us about these topics, you can contact me (Sophie Stenson) at or by reaching out via LinkedIn.

To join us for our next free webinar about Nature Connectedness with Dr Miles Richardson from the University of Derby, on the 26th June 2023 you can register here!

Some questions from the webinar, answered by Brittany:

1. What do gender studies say about such trauma? Also it will vary from culture to culture and geography.

I am sure there are differences in gender, culture, and geography in how vicarious trauma is perceived, experienced and reported. From what I have seen in the studies, the gender results are mixed, with some finding that there are no gender differences and some finding that women are more vulnerable to experiencing vicarious trauma (but the “why” behind that is complex).

2. Did you see any differences in trauma or their causes or responses depending on different forms of conservation eg wildlife vs land or water?

Unfortunately this isn’t something I looked at in my study, but I imagine there are some differences, as well as employment type (full-time, contract, intern, etc.). I would love for someone to explore this!

3. You mentioned that your study participants were self-selected, and perhaps more likely to take part if they were experiencing trauma.  Do you have any insight into what the stats would look like without that degree of self-selection, to head off those that might downplay this study on that basis?

Unfortunately any guess I would give would be purely based on my own perception—I, too, would love to know the answer to this question! Even if these results are significantly inflated, and say only 48% of conservationists are experiencing moderate to severe levels of vicarious trauma instead of 94%, I still consider this a concerning finding that should be addressed.

4. You mentioned that fieldwork can be a source, do you know of any resources for people who manage/plan fieldwork to take into consideration?

You know, I really don’t. I imagine there are resources out there, and if you find them, please send them my way! I know of a woman in the States who is applying for a grant to essentially create this kind of resource for all field sciences, which tells me there’s a gap right now. 

5. Do you think there are also structural sectoral differences that lead to this, e.g. most eNGOs are not Unionised.

I imagine so, especially given that employment security had significant correlations with vicarious trauma, anxiety and depression, but can’t say for sure!

6. What advice might you have for helping collaborators who are local to the areas we visit during fieldwork, who may experience trauma but lack the networks and support that we do as visitors to field sites?

I would recommend that more conservationists that are going out for fieldwork have more “tools in their toolbelt” when it comes to coping and regulations skills that they can use for both themselves and teach to others. Of course, we are not going to be on-the-ground therapists for local individuals, but we can share helpful emotional distress and regulation techniques that are free, replicable, and effective. Box breathing, somatic tracking, and grounding techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 are effective from a nervous system and psychological perspective and can be done in any environment.

7. Did attitudes towards resilience come up in your research at all? I have noticed that a common management answer to eco-anxiety is ‘people need to be more resilient’ without organisations providing support on this.

I think this is one of my biggest misses in this study, frankly. I did not measure resilience and I really wish I would have. I think this is a next step or area of interest that should be explored. What does resilience mean to conservationists? What is its association with psychological distress and trauma? What practices are proven to strengthen resilience specifically in conservationists? The questions are endless!

8. Can we fundraise for projects to include therapy support for workers/volunteers?

That would be absolutely grand! What if we were able to fundraise to help conservationists process trauma, or provide therapy at a much lower cost? Or deliver workshops to teach teams how to be trauma-aware and helpful coping and regulation techniques? What if they could then share that information and those skills as they went out into fieldwork (like the question above)? This would be so powerful!

Mental Health Support Links:

Additional links from our webinar attendees:

From Kay Farmer to Everyone: interesting site about fieldwork From Andrea Echeverry Alcendra to Everyone: I want to share this resource that was published recently and could be useful

From Steph Miles to Everyone: I have started two support/knowledge sharing groups for GIS and Field Recording methods in conservation, if you would like to join please contact me:

From Don Carruthers Den Hoed (CPPCL) to Everyone: I am joining from Nexwlélexwm in Howe Sound/Átl’ka7tsem in the land contemporarily known as Canada and am grateful to live, work, and play in the traditional territory of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. I lead the Canadian Parks, Protected, and Conserved Areas Leadership Collective (CPPCL) to support effective, equitable, and transformative area-based conservation. / / . We have had the privilege to work with young professionals who are trying to turn their eco anxiety into action and will share today’s session with them. And I would be happy to connect with the speakers or those on the call. This is such a valuable and important conversation.

IUCN is the world’s largest environmental network and maybe it/we can do better in supporting each other within that network. For example, the 23rd May 2023 will see the inaugural meeting of a global Civic Spaces Task Force which will take up the cause of environmental defenders, some of whom risk their lives to protect nature. There is much more we can do and sharing the recording of this webinar will raise the awareness of these issues. Maybe we need some more platforms in which we can talk to each other more, share each others experiences, provide some help and give each other some confidence, hope and support. It may even be another role for IUCN National Committees and Commissions…

Please let us know if you are interested in hearing more about these topics or reach out to us if you’d like to collaborate on future projects.

Some feedback from our webinar chat:

 – Great presentation Brittany! So good to recognise this issue. What makes me a good conservationist is the joy I find in nature and I am able to bring people along with me, BUT the more ecologically aware I become the more I feel helpless and desperate, and so I find it harder to bring that joy to my role and therefore harder to ignite interest in other people. Also the pressure of delivery of projects means that you often are unable to enjoy your work, or take stock very often.

 – This data will be very helpful for a workshop I do with two counselling partners (I am a wildlife biologist) called Nurturing trauma-informed Conservation Communities. Thank you so much.

 – After running a successful professionally focused MSc in Environmental Conservation for years I’ve closed it as I can’t bear good graduates going into seasonal, zero hours contracts and back to shop work over the winter – eventually giving up on conservation as a career. Not to mention the ethics of student debt – my positive response was the L7 Ecologist apprenticeship

 – Jessie, I share the trauma and struggles you went through. I appreciate your starting Lonely Conservationists and for making the conversation about sustainable careers a global conversation!  Your work gives me hope and has kept me in the environmental movement. Thanks!

 – This has been a really valuable session. As a leader in a relatively large eNGO it is invaluable to understand the issues raised and what we can put in place to make our organisation even more supportive in such challenging times. I will be talking to our executive team and HR team to share what I have learned today. Thank you!

 – Hi everyone, I work in climate change adaptation at Natural England, and have been trying to work on this kind of thing more in my organisation as I am seeing more and more need for it among my colleagues. We have a great wellbeing and mental health network, we run climate cafes and we are now using the coaching approach alongside wider climate change training to help support colleagues in engaging in this difficult work, having challenging conversations, acknowledging all of our emotions, and supporting ourselves and each other along the way. We are getting really great feedback as to how helpful this is for colleagues. We’re also working on more creative, inclusive, equitable and just approaches, that this is so much part of. I’m so glad to see the work you’ve so generously shared this evening.

 – Thank you, very positive initiative & great presentations. All best to all in your endeavours!

 – Thank you both! Given a new conservationist a lot to think about, so happy to know there are so many more people around than those I have met at uni! Good to know the world isn’t just on our shoulders 🙂

 – Thanks very much for a great webinar. Will look up lonely conservationists 🙂

 – Great webinar. Thanks! Really informative and good to hear others’ perspectives. Also great just to be having a conversation on this topic! 🙂

 – Great webinar, many thanks for organising and to the speakers

 – Yes. Celebrate rest AND celebrate pause and reflection. 🙂

 – Brilliant! Thank you

 – Very powerful webinar

 – Your work is so important Jessie!!

 – Excellent and very helpful presentations 🙂 Thank you very much for sharing your experiences

 – Lovely, Jessie! Really inspiring!

 – Fascinating … thanks so much to Sophie, Brittany and Jessie

 – Thanks so much to you all for a really useful set of presentations and context setting

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