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Mental Health

Amid Shortage, Mental Health Workers Beware of Compassion Fatigue

— October 2, 2023

Vicarious trauma can lead to compassion fatigue in mental health professionals.

Caregivers may experience compassion fatigue when they spend too much time caring for others and not enough time caring for themselves. According to a new report, full-time caregivers can become physically and emotionally exhausted and have problems balancing empathy for a patient and their own personal responsibilities. This applies to professional caregivers as well as anyone who devotes most of their time to tending to the needs of another person mentally or physically.

This became a much more prevalent problem in the aftermath of COVID-19 due to long working hours, worker shortages, and amount of stress placed on many healthcare employees. It is the same empathy and compassion for others that puts caregivers at risk of compassion fatigue.

The effects of compassion fatigue are very detrimental to a caregiver’s mental health and can begin to affect many areas of their lives. This occurs when the person providing care starts to take on the stress and trauma of the person they are caring for. Burnout is just one component of this condition. Burnout alone can cause exhaustion, depression, and anxiety, according to Kerry A. Schwanz, PhD, of Coastal Carolina University.

Dr. Schwanz told the American Psychological Association (APA) that it can also cause secondary traumatic stress (termed ‘vicarious trauma’). A signature symptom of this condition is having nightmares about someone else’s trauma. This can cause a caregiver to become hypervigilant, have intrusive thoughts, and have feelings of emptiness or numbness.

Amid Shortage, Mental Health Workers Beware of Compassion Fatigue
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It is important to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue in caregivers. Common signs include having difficulty separating personal and professional situations, feelings of being trapped or on edge, loss of productivity, and ongoing feelings of depression.

If not addressed, a caregiver suffering from compassion fatigue may encounter challenges in their personal relationships, exhibit emotional outbursts, and become vulnerable to addictive behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, or gambling.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that maintaining an effective self-care routine and focusing on building self-awareness and strong attributes will help contribute to a caregiver’s cognitive and emotional resilience. This helps to prevent and cope with compassion fatigue.

Having a lot of resilience can be built over time by focusing on four main components: sleep, nutrition, physical activity, and relaxation. It is vital that caregivers make sure to get adequate sleep, eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated, take care of basic hygiene, and have an effective relaxation strategy.

Self-care is dedicated time spent focusing on nurturing oneself and a good self-care routine often differs from person to person. This might include many varied activities from a taking long walk, to reading a book, to enjoying a bubble bath, among many others.

In some instances, compassion fatigue can become severe, especially when there is little or no self-care and relaxation available. This often leads to poor outcomes, both for the caregiver and the individuals they care for. As the problem becomes severe enough to affect a caregiver’s ability to do their job, it must be taken seriously, and it may be necessary for a person to step away from their role for a while.


What is compassion fatigue? Experts say taking care of others can hurt your mental health.

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?


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