MENTAL HEALTH

Are you suffering from compassion fatigue?

Sep 6, 2023, 6:00 PM

Image of a woman comforting another woman. Compassion fatigue is described as indifference to chari...

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue? It's not uncommon in health care and care giving professions. (Lumina Images via the Deseret News)

(Lumina Images via the Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Compassion fatigue is often seen in healthcare and the caretaking professions. Nurses, doctors, hospice workers and every other person who cares for others for a living knows this feeling, even if they don’t know the term.

“I would describe it as ‘I care almost too much’,” said Dr. Anne Pendo, Senior Medical Director of Provider Experience for Intermountain Health. “And the care I am providing may not be appreciated in the way it used to be or the care I’m providing is constant.”

Pendo saw this a lot during COVID-19 when healthcare workers treated patient after patient after patient.

“At some point, you become almost immune to how you are feeling, and then you don’t care for yourself, which makes it hard to take care of anybody else.”

Vicarious trauma

Compassion fatigue has also been described as vicarious or secondary trauma. It is such prolonged and deep caring that the trauma becomes your own.

Imagine someone who is caring for children or an elderly parent who watches the news and sees the war in Ukraine, followed by political fighting and then homelessness. This can lead to a case of compassion fatigue, when we are bombarded with too many things we can’t do anything about.

“It can be really overwhelming,” Pendo explained. Then she said, “Imagine you feel like you need a vacation. You take one, but when you come back, you’re not rested. There may be something more” going on there.

Something like compassion fatigue.

“In health care, we’re used to giving,” said Pendo. “We give and we give and we give, and we forget to take care of ourselves. Or it’s just too uncomfortable to take care of ourselves because we are the caretaker.”

Drugs and alcohol

There can be mental health consequences to compassion fatigue. They include anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.

“We worry about drug and alcohol abuse,” Pendo said. “Think about the consequences of not managing this or being proactive. They can be really significant.”

It comes down to this. We need to recognize that we can’t take care of others unless we take care of ourselves.

No one is going to do this for us

In our interview, Pendo said to me, “No one is going to say, ‘Amanda, I think you need to take a little more time for yourself. I know you have this interview, but a walk around the block would be good for you’.”

Something will always get in the way. Your spouse will call and need you to run an errand. A neighbor will need you. Your boss will ask you to work an extra shift.

“It’s really hard for anyone to intentionally commit to taking care of themselves,” Pendo explained. “The challenge is to believe that it’s OK, and to know what you need. Be comfortable enough to say, ‘I can’t do this until I do this.'”

It’s the simple things

Pendo did a series during COVID when she asked leaders in Utah what people can do to “take care of themselves.” It is different for every person, but the answers they offered were simple. Take walks. Spend time with family. Have dinner with family. Read a book.

In other words, this is doable.

“We often think we need something really big,” Pendo said, “but it really is the simple things, the human connections.”

We all need to normalize asking for help.

“We start from ‘It’s ok to not be ok.’ We don’t have to be comfortable with everything,” Pendo emphasized.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

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Are you suffering from compassion fatigue?