When COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on our daily lives, my thoughts and concerns went to the caretakers, particularly those in the helping professions. 

And my heart fell into my stomach.

They were about to be overwhelmed professionally and emotionally, blindsided with compounding trauma. Compassion fatigue would rear its ugly head, potentially leaving atrocities in its wake.

With the recent news stories about professionals’ suicides due to the pandemic, my hope is to shed light on this overlooked phenomenon.

Compassion Fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious trauma, is the consequence of working with traumatized individuals if the professional was exposed to significant numbers of them and had a strong empathic orientation. (Figley, 1995)   In other words, the professional who is most vulnerable often is a highly empathic and compassionate person exposed to trauma, especially on a routine basis.

Who is most at risk?

Many times, the person most susceptible is highly driven, perfectionistic, believes he or she can do it alone, is hesitant to share feelings for fear of burdening others (stiff upper lip), has a deep conviction for work, and possesses high empathy and compassion. 

My experience in facilitating Compassion Fatigue workshops was for those in animal care professions, such as animal shelter staff, veterinarians and animal control officers. However, any profession that is routinely subjected to trauma is at risk. Trauma is inherently disorienting and painful. Adding to the collective trauma we are all experiencing from COVID-19 can undermine even the most dedicated professional.       

This list is not exhaustive, but those most vulnerable include: 
  •   EMT/paramedics
  •  Doctors, nurses or any in the medical community, especially in emergency, ICU, or hospice capacities
  •  Veterinarians/animal shelter staff/animal control officers
  •   Firefighters
  •  Police
  •  Counselors
How do you know if you, or someone you love, is experiencing signs of compassion fatigue?

Some signs include:

  • Reliving traumatic experiences/intrusive thoughts
  • Numbing of feelings
  • Difficulty separating work from personal life
  • Loss of hope or purpose in Life
  • Anger, displaced on innocent bystanders
  • Hypervigilance, the feeling of being constantly "on guard"

One online self-test resource:  http://www.ptsdsupport.net/compassion_fatugue-selftest.html

To make a distinction, Compassion Fatigue is a deep, gut-wrenching reaction that can slowly strangle a person, often unrelenting in its grip.  Someone can be so far in compassion fatigue that they may not even be self-aware. This condition cannot simply be eradicated by taking a vacation.

The accumulation of stress from insufficient supplies, unanswered questions about the virus, possibly endangering or being separated from their families, and the televised protests against these professionals doing their jobs, could literally be the nail in their coffin. 

People have a primal and necessary need for connection. Once a person begins to disconnect or distance him or herself from previously loved activities and people, a red distress flag is being waved.     

What can be done to help prevent or mitigate Compassion Fatigue?

Since Compassion Fatigue can be debilitating, self-care is paramount and awareness is key. Many people have found meditation, journaling, quality nutrition, sleep, exercise, connecting to nature, finding other like-minded supportive people, or contacting a mental health professional to be the most helpful avenues for maintaining self-care.

During these especially uncertain and surreal times, we must break the stigma that asking for help, professional or otherwise, is a sign of weakness. In reality, it is the ultimate act of strength and courage. You are not alone. 

We are all deeply indebted to all who give so much professionally that it affects his or her personal life.  

Giving you a virtual hug...from 6 or more feet away. 😊

Tracie Barton-Barrett, MS, NCC, LPC

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Figley, C.R. (Ed.) (1995). Compassion Fatigue: Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorders from Treating the Traumatized. New York: Brunner/Mazel.


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