Helpers who are exposed to others’ pain daily must be careful that they take care of themselves or they could experience compassion fatigue.
Some give more than they should because they “feel like they have to keep giving,” said Ted Power, guidance counsellor and co-ordinator for accessibility services at the College of the North Atlantic.
He added that there are often internal or external pressures that make people feel that if they don’t give it their all, they are failing.
“Counsellors, paramedics, emergency room workers, firefighters, stuff like that. It has been mainly studied through them, but it can happen to anybody who is mainly engaged with the public,” Power said.
Many people are familiar with soldiers’ trauma, but it can happen to counsellors when they sit down with another person and empathize with them.
Mental health can only be expressed in language, so counsellors must pay attention to what their patients are trying to say and empathize with them, because the wounds are not always visible.
Power said helpers should be mindful about getting to a point where they feel “stress that does not go away. It can grind someone down and they can have a job that they maybe once liked, but they now find it very, very draining. It happens when you just give and give and give and give and give, and you are not building anything back up.”
Using a gas tank as a metaphor, Power explained that empathy gets used up if all a person does is “give, give, give.” The engine will start, but the car will run out of gas, so that person needs to stop and refill the gas tank before they can go on.
“Empathy is not an infinite resource,” Power said.
Compassion fatigue is becoming better understood and people are starting to become more aware of their limits, he added.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup,” Power said in his office at CNA.
Everyone in “our field needs to be aware of the negative effects” because if you do not know about it, you cannot prevent it, said Fiona Cunningham, a mental-health counsellor at Iris Kirby House, a facility for women and children leaving domestic violence.
The more aware people become, the more they can do to support each other, Cunningham said.
“One of the ways you can reduce the likelihood of developing (compassion fatigue) is by knowing what it is and what the symptoms look like, and knowing what circumstances can increase your likelihood, so we work with workplaces to develop a plan,” said Charmaine Davidge, who opened and operates Coastline Consultants.
Coastline Consultants does not do counselling, but does research, professional development training and workplace wellness sessions.
Davidge said the greatest concern with compassion fatigue is “it can erode your sense of empathy, which is really important when you work with people or if you are a family caregiver, and the people who are affected by compassion fatigue are people who care. … Because they care, they are able to feel and able to develop compassion fatigue.”