Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Community Outreach, Jake Eisen.
Compassion fatigue is defined by CAMH as the feeling of “vicarious trauma”, and to me, that’s one of the best ways to describe the state of mind of feeling helpless and mentally drained. And I know it better than most people would assume. Let’s talk about it.
Most people know me as someone that cares about others. Maybe a bit too much sometimes. But to me, it provides comfort. Knowing that the people around me are supported, cared for, and have an outlet to vent to is essential to me and to my values. But when you become that figure of
support, care, and peer therapy every day, for months on end, it begins to take a serious toll on your well-being unlike anything else. And I’ve dealt with compassion fatigue at least once every couple months.
I didn’t know much about mental health advocacy, or compassion fatigue for that matter, until January of last year. Someone that I started talking to had asked me for support and advice, and so I offered my care. However, this ended up lasting for six weeks straight, and so began a daily routine of listening to this person vent every single frustration to me, as well as come to me for triggered trauma support. While I knew that it was important to be there for them and to not leave them in anguish, I began feeling extremely numb and detached from my university experience. My commitment to schoolwork deteriorated, and my housemates knew that something was off. I felt ineffective. Lost. Burnt out. Hopeless. I was told I was “inconsiderate for
asking for support” and that I “should learn what empathy means”, and yet I didn’t know why – since I was giving someone validation, an ear to listen, and undivided attention during their times of trauma.
One day in January, I got an e-mail saying I had been selected as a delegate for the Jack.org Regional Summit in Kingston, and I knew that this was my opportunity to become more educated on how I was feeling. Hearing so many stories of people who had gone through similar situations had not only opened my eyes to the world of advocating for mental health, but also to the steps I needed to take to repair my own mental health. After learning about what compassion fatigue was, I began to mentally check off how many of the signs were applicable to me, and what I had to do to ensure I could look out for those signs moving forward in supporting others.
Metaphorically speaking, let’s imagine that those venting are a bottle of tequila. Most people think that everyone can handle a bit of tequila, right? Some people can handle more, but very few people can down a whole bottle of tequila and be okay afterwards, because the tequila can affect someone badly. Even fewer people can handle a whole bottle of tequila every day. However, some people aren't comfortable with that much tequila, and it's not okay to force tequila down someone's throat, right? One should always consider how the person drinking feels as well, because they are doing their very best and understanding how they are feeling is crucial too, especially when the tequila is hitting them hard. It's the exact same with venting - you would never force someone to listen to you vent day after day because it's not healthy. Asking the other person if they're interested in listening or if they could offer support is so important because you never know how someone else may be feeling. Furthermore, feelings of compassion fatigue
(or drunkenness, within the metaphor) can be very impactful on the listener and will not allow them to help at 100%.
The hardest part for me was telling someone that I needed to focus on my own mental health. If you’ve ever supported someone over time, you know that feeling of guilt and selfishness that comes from telling someone you need to take a step back. It can be one of the hardest things to disclose to someone you’re supporting, but it’s essential for your own mental well-being. My best piece of advice for someone experiencing compassion fatigue is to refer them to other lines of support (other friends and/or family, a helpline, crisis centres if applicable) during this time to ensure you yourself can practice self-care.
So, what can you do to be proactive about compassion fatigue? Your own mental health is your top priority, and practicing self-care is vital so that you can be the best version of yourself. Be mindful of how much you can support, and how as supporters we do not have full control over the lives of others. Emotional boundaries can also be helpful, while also ensuring they can be
flexible depending on other aspects of your life that may affect it. It’s crucial to understand that these are not wholly applicable to everyone, since we all have different healthy coping methods, and that’s okay. The important thing is to take a step back, so that you can focus on your own self-care.
I encourage everyone to understand how real compassion fatigue is, and that
it truly is okay to take a step backwards. You are doing amazing; I promise