What is it?
“Compassion Fatigue is emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people”
— Charles Figely, Ph.D., Director, Florida State University Traumatology Institute.
Research is starting to document that Animal Care Professionals are being traumatized in many of the same ways that other rescuers/first responders (firefighters, police, paramedics, corpsmen, service people in combat, Red Cross volunteers) are traumatized by what they witness. Some studies are beginning to suggest that animal care professionals may be number one in vulnerability to Compassion Fatigue and Burnout.
How to Know if you are in Trouble – Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:
When you are constantly exposed to harsh, painful realities (trauma) and you are not able to debrief (to talk about what happened and how you feel about it), all that you stuff inside builds up into a reservoir, until you are exhausted, or angry, or feel like you’ll explode, or feel that you hate all people, or you’ve lost your enthusiasm, joy, and hope.
You can feel depressed and want to quit your job. You can feel stuck in depression.
You may have sudden outbursts of anger.
You may feel sad, with your tears always just below the surface. Many long-time workers are experiencing long-term grief
You may feel cynical, or numb, or hardened, like nothing phases you.
You may have nightmares or flashbacks (where you repeatedly see images of suffering animals from the past).
You may switch back and forth, one minute feeling angry, the next minute numb, the next minute sad, the next minute depressed.
A combination of these symptoms can lead to burnout and is often responsible for the loss of many talented, valuable professionals. (Doug Fakkema). Does any of this sound familiar? Remember, these symptoms of emotional exhaustion are all normal reactions to abnormal/traumatic events. You are not crazy. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you need to take action, get support, institute a self-care program as described below. If any of these symptoms last more than two to three weeks, and you have instituted a self-care program, you might consider a few sessions of counseling.
What to do About Compassion Fatigue – What Helps
Dr. James Fogarty, an expert in critical incident stress management and trauma debriefing, states you must do 4 things:
Other ways to express your feelings in safe and appropriate ways: crying, giving sounds to your feelings, any physical release, drawing, journaling, music, a silent scream (One shelter wants to install a soundproof room and a punching bag.)
Brainstorm options and find solutions–take action
You already do this in ingenious ways. Try doing steps one and two first. Animal Care Professionals must be able to offer suggestions and help formulate policy.
Take care of yourselves
Do you take as careful care of yourself as you do of the animals? You have to be as committed to your own resiliency as you are to the care of the animals. You need to care for yourselves in order to give care to the animals.
Other Ways to Cope:
Animal Care Professionals across this country have spoken about other ways they are taking good care of themselves. Try one:
Listen to Doug Fakkema (Associated Director, Training & Special Projects, American Humane): Effective management of compassion fatigue is crucial to long-term employment and a healthy lifestyle. Organizations that effectively manage compassion fatigue are more likely to decrease turnover, increase adoptions, and reduce euthanasia.
Some Other Useful Resources for Managing Compassion Fatigue:
Some useful websites:
www.ExternalizationWorkshops.com: 3-day Life, Loss and Healing Workshops and 5-day Workshops for
People Who Were Abused As Children
www.groups.yahoo.com/group/euthtechsupport: Internet support group for euthanasia technicians
www.americanhumane.org: American Humane offers “Managing Compassion Fatigue” 1-day training
and awareness-building workshops Humane Society University offers training and awareness-
www.GrowthHouse.org: A Guide to Death, Dying, Grief, Bereavement, and End of Life Care
You are free to print this article to use to support each other in Compassion Fatigue.
Nancy Mullins, M.A., is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She has presented workshops for 20 years on grief, loss, trauma, and childhood abuse, nationally and internationally, including in Oklahoma City, Northern Ireland, and Zimbabwe (12 years as a member of the staff of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross). She is a partner in Support Services for Animal Care Professionals (SSACP).
© 2004 SSACP