Reading about the Jian Zhicheng, the Taiwanese animal shelter director who died by suicide, makes me feel sad. She died because she felt she had to put too many dogs to sleep, which unfortunately happens if people don’t neuter or spayed their dogs. This particular story touched me because its the first time I heard of someone dying by suicide as a result of compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is the experience of indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of the marginalized, as a result of being exhausted from helping. Individualized compassion fatigue includes bottled up emotions, excessive blaming, apathy, repeated nightmares and flashbacks to traumatic events, and chronic physical ailments such as colds and gastrointestinal problems. Compassion fatigue can also hit workplaces that include non-profits, hospitals, and any work in the care-giving field. Organizational symptoms include high absenteeism, negative attitude towards management, inability for teams to work together, and lack of vision for the future.
Causes of STS include increased workload, decreased personal time, and increased demands from both work life and personal life.
Individuals prone to compassion fatigue include those who are overly conscientious, perfectionists, those that have low levels of support and high levels of stress, and people that have negative coping mechanisms such as bottling up emotions or avoiding problems.
Healing from STS starts from the inside out. Individuals must understand where their negative attitudes are coming from, clarify personal and work place boundaries, and be loyal to a self- care plan. Self- care includes health building activities such as exercise, meditation, and massage, practicing the art of self-management that includes saying no, organizing life to be pro-active rather than reactive, and learning to choose battles.
Compassion fatigue is a unfortunate consequence when working in a field helping the sickly, the marginalized, and the impoverished. Even Mother Theresa wrote to her superiors that it was mandatory that her nuns take a year off from their duties every four to five years to heal from the effects of their care-giving work. Even though, there is no clinical treatment for this condition, the best preventive and reactive treatment is self-care.
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