compassion fatigue

Compassion Fatigue 101 FAQs

Recently I was interviewed by RadioMD about compassion fatigue and animal welfare workersradio md. The interview, only 10 minutes long, is a very quick introduction to compassion fatigue which might be helpful to you if you’re looking for some basic information.

You can listen to it here.

To help round out the interview (seriously, 10 minutes goes by in a flash when you’re talking about a BIG subject like this!), here are some answers to a handful of Frequently Asked Questions people often toss my way:

 

What is compassion fatigue? What are some common signs and symptoms?

Compassion fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that arises from the constant demand to be compassionate and effective in helping those in need and who are suffering. It’s the natural consequence of the stress from doing the emotional labor of helping animals and people who are in need.

Dr. Rachel Remen has said that “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”

And that’s the truth – we can’t do this work and not experience some emotional wear and tear. Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard. So there’s nothing wrong with you if you experience it. You’re not broken. It’s a normal reaction to the work that we do. Most of us will experience CF at one time or another in our careers. There is no shame in that. Once we understand this, we can take steps to help ourselves.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Compassion fatigue looks different for each one of us. So my symptoms might be different than yours. A few common signs of CF are:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Isolating ourselves from others
  • Anger and irritability
  • Cynicism
  • Sleep problems – like insomnia and hypersomnia
  • Bottled up emotions
  • Persistent physical ailments
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Apathy
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Using substances to numb out or self-medicate: drugs, alcohol, food, etc.
  • Workaholism – taking on more and more work and responsibility and blurring boundaries (common at the onset of CF)
  • A reduced ability to feel empathy and compassion for others and ourselves. Being disconnected and desensitized – it’s the opposite of the very qualities that brought us to the work in the first place (common in experienced caregivers)

Here’s a PDF with basic info regarding compassion fatigue definitions and symptoms. 

Are there any unique challenges that animal care workers face that contribute to their experience of CF?

While animal care workers have a lot in common with other helping professionals – they do have one unique factor that contributes to compassion fatigue which is euthanasia. No other helping professional is tasked with ending the lives of those they care for.

Look, no one gets into the business of helping animals because we want to end their lives, so euthanasia causes a lot of distress for us and on different levels: moral distress, primary trauma, and secondary traumatic stress.

It’s a common myth that only people who perform euthanasia in high numbers can be affected by CF. While euthanasia techs have been shown to have high levels of CF and burnout, you don’t have to be the one performing the euthanasia to experience CF for two reasons:

One, it’s an ever-present aspect of the work that all of us are doing. Euthanasia is a major issue in our workplaces and in the wider animal welfare community. Two, no matter what your job duties entail – from the front desk at a shelter to the ACO in the field – we’re engaged in helping those who are in need. That means CF is an occupational hazard for all of us.

 

What can animal care workers and other helping professionals due to manage the impact of compassion fatigue in their lives?

The first step to managing the impact of CF starts with understanding what it is and learning to recognize how it’s affecting you personally. We can’t do anything about it, if we aren’t aware of what it looks and feels like. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project by Patricia Smith has some great information and the book When Helping Hurts about CF in the veterinary professions is also very helpful. Read a book, hire someone to do a workshop at your organization, etc.

In addition to understanding and acknowledging CF, we need to assess our own levels of stress and self-care. Often, we spend all of our time and energy caring for others, and we leave ourselves with absolutely nothing leftover to take care of ourselves. Learning how to set limits and create healthy boundaries, so that we have enough time and energy for daily self-care and stress management is critically important.

When we’re suffering from CF, the quality of work can become compromised, which means we can cause harm to others. So we’re ethically obligated to take care of ourselves. It’s not optional. Caring for ourselves is not indulgent or selfish. Authentic self-care fills us back up each day, so we have something to give.

Try to do something each day that allows you to be present with yourself, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, singing, dancing – anything that allows you to detox from your day and create a sense of groundedness to help carry you forward. Create some internal space for yourself.

And finally researchers have shown that social support is of huge importance when it comes to managing compassion fatigue. We tend to isolate ourselves more and more when we’re feeling the effects of CF. We need support. Find a friend at work, talk with a therapist who understands compassion fatigue, build a peer support group that meets each month, don’t ignore the phone calls from your family…do whatever you can to stay connected to those who care about you.

 

If someone is feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts, what should they do?

If you’re feeling hopeless, anxious, depressed, or working through unresolved trauma, please seek out professional mental health help. Self-care strategies alone aren’t enough. Ask a friend or your primary physician for a referral or visit a site like PsychologyToday.com to find a professional in your area.

If you or someone you know are suicidal or in crisis, you need to get help immediately.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for help. The call is free and totally confidential. A trained crisis worker will listen to your problems and will tell you about mental health services in your area.

If you suspect a friend or coworker is suicidal, encourage them to get help, give them this number or take them to get help, and let them know that you and others really care about them and want them to be well. And keep following up with them, even after the crises looks like it has passed.

What’s the good news?

The good news is that we love our work. Animal care workers have some of the highest levels of compassion satisfaction – which is the joy we get from doing our jobs well. When we take care of ourselves and reconnect to the joys of our work, it can help us become more resilient to the challenges of the work.

Making a conscious effort, through simple exercises, to be aware of and acknowledge what we enjoy and find meaningful about our work not only boosts our positive outlook, but it helps us to stay empowered: it’s our choice to keep doing the work we love, despite how difficult it can be.

Another good thing is that the conversation about compassion fatigue is growing and more and more resources are being created every day to address this important issue. Veterinary social workers, support groups, online classes, and webinars are all now available to help animal care workers access the help they need to be healthy while they continue to do good work.

Where can people learn more about compassion fatigue?

Check out the resources listed on my website. You can also take a class with me online. My online program Compassion in Balance, was created specifically for organizations who care for and work with animals.

“Self-Care is Not a One-Time Activity” an Interview with Enid Traisman

Earlier this year I came across an article about compassion fatigue that introduced me to the fabulous work of Enid Traisman, CT, MSW. A certified grief counselor and Director of the Pet Loss Support Program at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, OR, Enid recently co-founded the DoveLewis wellness program to support the staff in the benefits of self-care and work-life balance.

Research has shown that in order to effectively manage compassion fatigue, changes must happen at both the individual and the organizational level. So I was thrilled to learn that DoveLewis was making staff wellness a priority, incorporating different approaches to supporting staff as they engage in this challenging work. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Enid.


Jessica: Can you tell us more about Wellness Month at Dove? How did this idea become a reality?

Enid: Over the years I have seen amazing veterinary professionals pour their hearts and souls into their jobs, and I have seen countless numbers of these wonderful folks suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout. Some leave the field, others continue to practice but no longer enjoy working.

Veterinary care is high stress for a variety of reasons, including the shorter lifespan of animals, economic restraints inhibiting optimal care, difficult clients, cranky coworkers and long, long hours. Many veterinary professionals are born to be caregivers. Caregivers by nature thrive on helping others, often at the expense of taking care of their own needs that they may deem unimportant or even selfish.

As a certified grief counselor and compassion fatigue specialist I have seen firsthand and studied the importance of teaching self-care and work-life balance to veterinary professionals. For years I have been providing workshops teaching these skills to facilitate veterinary professionals in continuing and enjoying their career helping animals.

The workshops, complete with self-assessments and tools to build a viable self-care routine were well received and helped people understand why they were feeling fatigued. BUT, it is hard to put into action changes necessary for combating and healing from compassion fatigue – and that is where the idea for bringing Wellness Month to our staff came from.

Along with my co-worker, CVT and certified yoga instructor Josey Kinnaman, we designed a month full of activities and opportunities that would be easily accessible for our staff. Our goal was to encourage and make it easy for our staff to experience a variety of self-care practices in hopes of starting new healthy habits.

Some of the opportunities provided at the hospital:

* Fresh healthy snacks and drinks daily to help sustain their physical bodies.

* Yoga sessions twice weekly to support a healthy mind and body.

* Onsite massages to sooth sore, tense muscles.

* Guided imagery with a Buddhist monk to teach relaxation of the mind and body.

* Art activities to unleash creativity, including scented bath salts and neck warmers.

* A contest to encourage exercise, hobbies, and replenishing activities outside of work.

Enid and Dogs
Enid with her dogs


How has the response from staff been so far?

Many of the staff were enthusiastic and appreciative of the many activities we brought to the hospital for them to participate in. We had upwards of 70% participation in some of the activities. We heard many great comments and requests to continue with wellness activities every month.


What advice do you have for management, of animal shelters and vet practices, who would like to support their staff’s emotional health and to encourage workplace wellness?

The support of management is essential for impacting positive changes in the culture of work environment. By providing the expectation and allotting time for employees to take good care of themselves it is more likely to happen. Even small changes like implementing regular breaks for the staff so they can eat a healthy snack, hydrate and take walk around the block for some fresh air will make a huge difference.

I have heard managers say that it is too busy to take breaks…I disagree; staff members will be more effective, make fewer mistakes and be more pleasant with their co-workers and patients if their basic needs are being met.

Managers can support work-life balance by limiting overtime scheduled. With a tough job like veterinary care, it is very important to have time away from the stressors of the job to unwind and replenish between shifts. They must have time to catch up on sleep and have some fun and exercise to be at the top of their game.

In the long run, supporting self-care and work-life balance will come back to the hospital tenfold, happier staff, well cared for patients and clients and less turnover.

Euthanasia plays a big part in our experiences of compassion fatigue. Many of us are grieving the deaths of the animals we’ve cared for, at the shelter or at our vet practices, as well as comforting our clients who are grieving the loss of their pets. What, if anything, can we do to make this part of our jobs less traumatic?

Acknowledging how sad euthanasias are and recognizing that they take a toll emotionally is a good first step. Too many veterinary professionals push the sadness down and shrug their shoulders thinking this is just part of my job. Yes, it is part of the job, a sad part that needs to be consciously attended to.

Additionally, I try it instill in our staff that grieving clients do not need to be fixed; their sadness need not weigh heavily on us because grief is a normal, healthy response to loss. The people who are grieving loved their animals deeply and experienced the joy of the human animal bond. In this field, we love those people for taking good care of their companions. And, people will heal from their grief in time and with support. I explain to the veterinary staff that by providing a compassionate euthanasia and expressing heartfelt condolences for the family they are providing a meaningful service and setting the groundwork for a healthy healing process. Trust that these folks will heal, but first they need the space and support to grieve, not to be “fixed”.

Are there any rituals or practices that might help veterinary hospital staff to cope with the challenges of the work and let go of painful emotions?

Each individual and/or hospital will benefit by creating a ritual to deal with the buildup of sadness. Some hospitals dim the lights for a moment to signify a euthanasia will be taking place to acknowledge the reverence of life and death, a moment of silence instead of background chatter about weekend plans. For some people, taking a moment at the end of each shift to say the names of those who died, writing their names and a special quality about them in a book or reciting a prayer. For others it may be getting a weekly massage to release the sadness and tension they were holding in their bodies. Someone else may take a hike to a beautiful spot and lay stones in memory of each family who has suffered a loss.


What’s a simple self-care act that consistently replenishes and sustains you?

I practice healthy eating, exercise, and sufficient sleep regularly. I enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching TV in the evening with my cats and dogs on the couch with me. My hobby is fused glass work, creating in my studio replenishes me. I hope to hike more this summer and plan a trip to somewhere exotic.

Is there something that gets in the way of your self-care? How do you move through it?

Not enough time is a constant struggle. I remind myself that I must prioritize and make time to eat healthy, exercise and sleep. It is a continuous struggle to put my basic needs first, so that I don’t become cranky and irritable about helping others. When I feel I am going off course, I remind myself to be mindful, to do some easy, quick deep breathing exercises, and schedule in a nice bath or movie night in the immediate future as a gift to myself.


Do you have a mantra or favorite quote that serves as a guidepost in your work?

The heart first pumps blood to itself before it pumps blood to the rest of the body; I must take good care for myself if I want to take good care of others.

 

How would you finish this sentence?

Self-Care is: essential to sustain our ability to help others.

 


Any other words of wisdom?

Self-care is not a one-time activity. It’s not a finite project like building a house. It’s more like the ongoing creation of a garden. It’s never done. It requires ongoing attention. Yet, like the joy of tending and continually creating a garden, there can be great contentment and satisfaction in tending to our own bodies, hearts and souls. Service to the animals is sacred. And so is taking great care of ourselves.


Yes, that’s so well said. Thank you Enid!

 

For more of Enid’s work, visit her DoveLewis blog, or pick one of her five books, which includes My Pet Remembrance Journal designed for bereaved pet owners.

 

p.s. If you’re outside of the Portland, OR area and would like to deepen your understanding of compassion fatigue, you may be interested in my 2015 summer class, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, at the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program or one of my other online courses.

 

Be well,

New Class Option: Compassion Fatigue Strategies

Over the past few months, I’ve teamed up with the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program to create Compassion Fatigue Strategies a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. And it starts June 15th!

So, you may be wondering: What’s the difference between this new course and my other class, Compassion in Balance? Overall, the class materials are very similar, but the courses are set up differently. The original class, Compassion in Balance, is scheduled, with new materials released each week. Students move through each lesson together at the same time.

Compassion Fatigue Strategies is totally self-paced. Think: On Demand. You’ll have access to the whole class on day one and you can do the work at your own speed. But the biggest difference is that this new class offers you the chance to earn continuing education class hours, which Compassion in Balance does not.

dog-624951_1280

 

You may prefer to take this new course via the University of Florida if: You want a class that starts this summer, you like doing things at your own pace, and you need continuing education credits.

If those things don’t really matter to you, then you might want to wait for the next round of CiB which will run this September. But, I wanted to make sure you had the option to choose, in case you’re itching for a class right away!

Still not sure? Here’s a handy chart that breaks it down in detail:

Compassion in Balance Compassion Fatigue Strategies
Class Features
Start Date September 2015 June 15, 2015
(you can start the class any time until July 18, 2015)
End Date Mid November 2015 August 15, 2015
Type of Course Scheduled: new lesson made available each week Self-Paced: all lessons made available at once. Materials released upon enrollment, beginning June 15
Registration Start and End Dates Enrollment begins August
Enrollment closes September
Open for enrollment now!
Enrollment closes July 18
Continuing Ed Credits? No Yes
15 continuing education class hours
Quizzes No Yes. To receive CEs, quizzes must be completed by August 15
Discussion Boards Yes Yes, until August 15, 2015
Live calls with Jessica Yes Yes
Access to Course Materials One Year Until October 15, 2015
Class Size Limited Open, No Limit
Platform Ruzuku Canvas (via UF)
Price $149 $200
Discounts available? Yes No

 

No matter which class you choose, you’ll still get to hang out with me! Both classes have discussion boards where we can talk about what you’re learning and both classes have multiple live phone calls, so we can get together in real time.

To learn more about the new class, check out this page. Or, if you want to go right to registration for the UF class, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, hit this link.

And if you have questions, leave a comment of feel free to email me.

High five!

7 Easy, Affordable, Fun Ways To Increase Self-Care

Some days I don’t know where the time goes. Before I even look up from work, I realize it’s time to call it quits for the day. I didn’t do yoga or meditate or anything I had planned to do for myself. Blergh.

Self-care is tricky, not because it’s all that complicated, but because most of us put it at the bottom of our list of things to do. One reason (among many) for that is because we’ve aimed too high and made it hard for ourselves to meet our self-care goals.

I’m a big fan of underachieving, so I wanted to share some easy ways to add self-care into our lives.

Those of you who subscribe to my e-letters already know what’s up, since you got a version of this list over the holidays. But for those of you missed it, here are some of my favorite, simple ways we can all take care of ourselves:

 

1. Rent or download a free audio book from the library and listen to it while you commute to work. Make your journey an entertaining one. I just listened to Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Listening to a story that isn’t related to work is stimulating and refreshing. Plus, it makes the commute a pleasure instead of one more chore we have to do.

2. Buy a humidifier/aromatherapy diffuser. Use with lavender oil. Put it near your bed. Sleep well.

This one is rocking my world lately. I cannot wait to go to bed, so that I can turn this gadget on. Which means I’m not staying up late to watch one more TV show or to surf the web. As soon as I can, I hit the sheets, so I can huff some lavender. So I’m increasing the quality and quantity of my sleep: that’s some excellent self-care right there.

I got mine here.

MIU-COLOR-300ml-Aroma-Diffuser-Ultrasonic-Humidifier-300-0-0

 

3. Take an online drawing class with the super talented Lisa Congdon. It’s free for a 2 week trial, after that it’s $10 a month (cancel any time). Get your imagination and creativity rolling on your day off. I’ve been doodling like a maniac since taking this class which is relieving some of my stress and connecting me to a part of myself that I let slide over the years. It’s important that we all have hobbies outside of our work.

4. Grab a book that has nothing to do with work or school and read for pleasure. I just finished Outlander (thanks for the recommendation Nat!). It was light and entertaining which kept my attention, even when I was stressed out. Stories like this help me let go of obsessive thoughts so I can rest at night.

5.  Subscribe to a new free podcast and listen to it on the way home from work or while you’re making dinner. It’ll help you decompress after a tough day. On Being is my daily bread. I just finished listening to Serial too and it rocked my world.

6. Ask a friend to join you for a class you’ve wanted to take, like yoga or painting. Then book it. No backing out. I look for Groupons for classes to save money. And I found a yoga studio that is donation only. Search your local area for sweet deals, so money isn’t a barrier. Being with friends helps us feel less isolated and learning something new helps us to feel more competent. Both build resiliency.

7.  Do nothing. Treat your self to some rest. Really. Sit down, be still, and breathe for 5 minutes (or more). Allow yourself some quiet time. Listen to the birds. Be present to the moment and let the rest go. Cultivating calm is self-care.

So those are a few things that replenish and sustain me. But maybe you prefer knitting cat sweaters or laying someone out in roller derby. Whatever it is, add it to your to-do list or your schedule and make time to do you in 2015.

Self-care doesn’t have to be overwhelming. But we do need to plan for it and stick to our commitment to ourselves, so we don’t let weeks and months go by without taking care of our own needs.  So before any more time slips by, brainstorm a few easy ways that you’ll care for yourself in the coming months and make it happen. You deserve it!

Giving you a love-filled high five, 

Compassion in Balance is Open!

Just in case you missed the announcement in my latest e-letter

Compassion in Balance is now open for registration!

 

I created Compassion in Balance, a unique six week online program, because I want animal care workers to have access to the tools and resources that will help them to be well, while they do good work. This is the class I wish I’d had, back when I was working at the animal shelter!

Class kicks off on Monday, February 9th, 2015. And enrollment is now open!

 

You can read much more about CiB, including who this class is for, what we’ll cover each week, and my answers to your FAQs right here.

 

I want to keep this class a safe, supportive environment, so I’m limiting enrollment to just 30 students for this session and half of those spots are taken already!

Want to be one of those 30 people?

 

Read more about the class, think about it, and then enroll. I don’t want you to rush into signing up for the class without really knowing what you’re getting into!

Go ahead and check it out. Really, go on. I’ll still be here when you get back. I have some emails to answer and a few videos of baby goats to watch, so I’ll be here for a while.

 

A Simple Self-Care Primer

This month in The Lab we’re working on self-care basics together.

As you can imagine, we talk about self-care a lot (we even have self-care accountability hours!). That’s because it’s part of the foundation for being well while we do good in the world.

Self-care is deceptively simple in that the basic stuff really works.

The hard part is that we have to convince ourselves we’re worth it, set boundaries to do it, and then commit to practicing it.

Easier said than done for almost all of us. That’s why I built The Lab.

For those of us who work or volunteer in helping professions (as animal care workers do), there are actual Standards of Self-Care Guidelines which serve as a constant reminder that self-care is our professional obligation. That’s because there’s a correlation between ethical violations and compassion fatigue (Gentry & Figley, 2007). And what’s one of the ways we effectively address compassion fatigue? Through self-care.

Of course, when you talk about self-care, lots of questions come up. Like what the hell is it and do we really deserve it? So with that in mind, here’s a Self-Care primer!

What Self-Care is NOT:

Indulgent

Selfish

Pointless

Lazy

Weak

Avoiding problems

Mindless

What Self-Care IS:

Courageous

Compassionate

Mindful

Restorative

Thoughtful

Necessary

Brave

Challenging

Radical

Self-preservation

Our ethical obligation

self care quote

You Don’t Need To Earn Self-Care By:

working the hardest

saving a million lives

being perfect

giving until it hurts

putting yourself last

finishing the to-do list

waiting until everyone else’s needs have been met

You don’t have to earn it at all. It’s your right to take care of yourself.

Who Is It For?

Self-Care Is For EVERYONE. 

If you are alive, self-care is for you.

What Self-Care Looks Like:

Some self-care feels great and is effortless (think: watching a sunset). Other self-care is a drag, but necessary (think: going to the dentist).

Authentic, sustainable self-care is much more than just comforting or treating ourselves. That stuff is okay too (bring on the Netflix!), but healthy self-care goes much deeper than that.

It is sustainable. This isn’t about extreme makeovers and impossible New Year’s resolutions.

It meets our basic needs. That’s stuff like fresh foods, rest, exercise, medical care, etc.

It is a regular daily practice. It’s not something we save for vacations or when all the work is done (which is never).

It meets our needs in a variety of areas: physical, spiritual, psychological, social, professional, and emotional.

It is thoughtful, intentional, and it feels alright. Self-care isn’t punishment. It’s stuff we enjoy or benefit from doing.

It is given to ourselves guilt-free and with enthusiasm (you know, like how we give to others all the time).

It means we say no, set limits, and respect our personal boundaries, so we have enough time and energy left for ourselves.

It often needs to be done in community. Who do you spend your time with every day? That matters a lot.

How Do You Know If It’s Really Self-Care?

If you’re not sure if eating a bowl of ice cream or watching a movie or exercising is self-care or numbing/avoiding/[insert unhealthy coping method here], ask yourself why you are doing it and how it feels.

Are you mindfully eating that ice cream and enjoying every last bite, stopping when you’re full? Do you feel refreshed and alive? That’s self-care.

Are you attacking a gallon of ice cream with a soup ladle while zoned out in front of the computer, totally unaware that you’re even eating it until the container is empty and you feel sick? That’s not self-care.

Not sure? Ask yourself questions like:

What do I need right now and how can I give that to myself?

How does this sustain me?

How will I feel after I do it? 

How Do I Start?

Some self-care takes time to plan and execute. Sometimes this can be overwhelming and an immediate roadblock. So, a great way to start is by following your natural impulses and/or focusing on what you already do that brings you joy and pleasure.

Pee when you have to pee. Eat when you’re hungry. Drink when you are thirsty.

Pause for a moment and enjoy the feel of the breeze and the sound of the birds with the intention of being restored.

See? Simple, not easy.

You can also start by picking one thing that matters to you and making a commitment to do something about it.

Commit to a walk after dinner or getting your phone out of your bedroom.

After you are successful, you move on to the next area you’d like to address. One step at a time. If you’re not sure, then I think getting better sleep is usually a good place to start. Being sleep deprived is no joke.

Expect to drop the ball sometimes. That’s life and, in our line of work, there are always crazy circumstances that throw us for a loop. Whenever you find that your self-care practices aren’t what you’d like or need them to be, just be kind to yourself and start again. You’re not a failure. Don’t waste time or energy beating yourself up.

Begin again, wherever you are, and start taking baby steps back towards your self-care practices or goals. Make it easy to succeed by lowering the bar and just get back to it in whatever way you can.

Why It Matters:

Because you deserve it. Because you’re alive. Every one of us deserves to reserve enough time, energy, and money to take care of ourselves. All of us. No matter who we are or what we do for a living.

But if you DO choose to work in a helping profession, then you have to engage in self-care as a professional obligation. It is not selfish and it doesn’t hurt or take away from those who need your help. Self-care is simply putting your own oxygen mask on first.

It helps to keep you in the game for the long haul, doing ethical, effective work.

Looking for more ideas to help you get started? Take a look at this PDF. 

And if you work or volunteer with animals, join us in The Lab or connect with me 1-on-1 for some coaching on self-care and compassion fatigue!

Depression and Suicide In Animal Care Professions: What Can We Do?

[Update: In the years since I first wrote this blog, so many wonderful veterinarians, vet techs, shelter and rescue staff, trainers, and other animal care and welfare workers have died of suicide. What I wrote about Dr. Yin below is for all of them and for all of you who are still here. We love you and you matter.]

Dr. Sophia Yin died last week at just 48 years old. It is a great loss, felt deeply by everyone in the animal care world. I didn’t know her personally, but her work truly helped me be a better advocate for my dog. Dr. Yin was a force for good for our pets. Yesterday it was revealed that she died of suicide.

She is not the only veterinarian to die by suicide this year.

I don’t know a thing about the details of Dr. Yin’s life and I don’t know what led up to Monday’s events. But I feel like losing her in this way is an opportunity to talk about something that matters very much to me: your well-being and how your work affects you.

Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of our work with animals, whether you are an animal control officer or kennel attendant in a small town or an internationally recognized veterinarian.

Our work requires that we compassionately and effectively respond to the constant demand to help those who are suffering and in need. This can result in our experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

If you are suffering, you are not alone and you are not crazy. Everyone who works in a helping profession is affected by their work. It’s normal. It’s a hazard of the job.

As Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen so eloquently says,

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”

The symptoms of compassion fatigue are many and each one of us will experience the unavoidable stress of our work differently. But anxiety, sadness, isolation, and anger are just a few ways it might be showing up for us.

Fortunately. we can take steps to manage our symptoms. However, if the symptoms of compassion fatigue are not recognized and addressed effectively, they may lead to depression and a host of other mental and physical illnesses.

And, if a person already has a history of depression, working as a helping professional can make them more vulnerable to compassion fatigue.*

Another factor that contributes to compassion fatigue is perfectionism, a common trait in veterinary caregivers. Perfectionism can add to compassion fatigue-related stress, by exhausting caregivers and reducing their ability to give compassionate care to themselves – one of the very things they need to be well.

A study in the UK revealed that British veterinarians are four times as likely to die by suicide than the average person and twice as likely as their human healthcare counterparts to do so. In the book When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, author Kathleen Ayl, PsyD writes about perfectionism and suicide in veterinary caregivers.

Ayl quotes equine journalist Candy Lawrence who wrote that veterinary professionals are typically, “…intent on improving themselves and dedicated to putting forth a 180% effort…when they fail to heal, when they fail to prolong the quality of life, this is often perceived as an internalized, magnified, and personal defeat. Male depression due to bed problems can be treated with . High levels of self-criticism are often associated with high levels of depression.”

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There’s much more to write on this topic, but I want to stop and say this:

Your life matters. You do not need to earn the right to take care of yourself.

You deserve the same level of compassionate care that you give your clients.

You do not need to be perfect or give until you are empty in order to earn your self-care.

Give to yourself with as much enthusiasm and skill as you give to others.

You can do that by getting help. If you are suffering from compassion fatigue symptoms or you are struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, symptoms of PTSD, or anything else: seek professional help.

The cruel twist of depression is that its very nature makes reaching out for help difficult. So get help early.

Look for a therapist that understands vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Shop around until you find a therapist that suits you best (it’s ok to meet with a few different people until you find the person that is the right match for you). See if there’s a veterinary social worker nearby that specializes in the human-animal bond.

Be sure to tell your therapist about your work-related stress, so they understand that your symptoms are, in part, related to the unique nature of your work as a helping professional.

And we must help each other too.

We can do that by being more informed about the emotional toll that this work takes on ALL of us. Learn to recognize and manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

We can create a culture of wellness that values taking time for self-care, as much as we value taking care of the needs of others.

We can be conscious of how we stigmatize seeking professional help. We’ve got to take the shame out of talking about mental health.

Getting professional help is an act of self-care. Self-care is critical to doing effective, ethical, sustainable and joyful work.

When I worked at the shelter, I saw a therapist. It helped. Don’t deny yourself the support you need because you’re afraid of what others will think.

I will think you are brave.

What else can we do?

I don’t know what was happening in Dr. Yin’s life, but I am so sorry that she was struggling and felt such despair. She meant so much, to so many. She was making a real difference in the world and she will be missed. My heart goes out to her friends and family. I hope they take some comfort in knowing that Dr. Yin was deeply respected, loved, and treasured by people and their pets around the world.

You made a difference Dr. Yin. Thank you.

Let’s start a conversation. What else can we do? How can we support one another?

Resources:

7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community

Are You Thinking of Suicide and Other Questions We’re Afraid to Ask

Suicide Hotline

When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession

CompassionFatigue.org

Pawcurious “We Love You to Death” 

NAMI: Suicide Prevention Tips

TIME: The Mystery of Suicide and How to Prevent It

VetGirl: Suicide Awareness in Veterinary Medicine webinar

University of Buffalo School of Social Work Self-Care Starter Kit

Rollin’ With Rubi Still, I Am One

Self Care Is Not Optional (my own experience with compassion fatigue)

My online self-study course, Compassion in Balance, is designed to support animal care workers as they work to increase their well being, while they continue to do good work in the world. Visit this page for more information.

*Please note that compassion fatigue is not a mental illness. It is the name of a group of symptoms that helping professionals may experience as a normal occupational hazard of their work. Compassion fatigue does not always lead to depression. Depression is a mental illness and has many causes. While they are sometimes connected, compassion fatigue and depression are not the same. However, both deserve our attention and anyone suffering from either should be encouraged to seek help. 

[repost] I Heart Boundaries: Compassion Fatigue Education

Note from Jessica: I originally shared this blog on Notes From a Dog Walker, where I write about my dog-filled life, and thought it would be handy to share it here as well!

 

Earlier this summer I met the coolest bunch of rescue and shelter workers at BAD Rap’s Rescue Jam. There were 70+ people at this unique weekend-long event and they were all stoked to get to work using the new tools, ideas, and connections picked up during their time in Oakland.

I was there to give two presentations: one for DINOS and another on compassion fatigue. My compassion fatigue talk was a way to remind them, before they jumped back into work at home, that their most important tool – the one that is capable of making the biggest impact and doing the most good – is themselves. We are our most important tool and yet, we rarely take time to care for ourselves.

As far as our Make-A-Difference-Toolbox goes, nothing trumps the tool of people when it comes to making things better for dogs and their peeps. But generally speaking, our field doesn’t spend a whole lot of time, energy, or resources addressing the needs of the people who dedicate themselves to the difficult work of making a difference for animals.

So that’s why I’m hanging out in hot tents talking about compassion fatigue these days. At the Jam I shared strategies for managing compassion fatigue related stress. There are many, but setting boundaries is an important one. In fact, it’s critical.

Setting boundaries and taking care of ourselves allows us to engage in sustainable, effective, and ethical work.

 

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I wasn’t the only one talking about setting healthy boundaries at the Jam. It’s such an significant topic that many of the other speakers touched on the importance taking care of ourselves and setting limits too. It’s the only way to stay in the game long term and do good work.

Ironically, I had “I heart boundaries” t-shirts made for DINOS a few years ago because I want people to respect the personal space of dogs. Turns out this tee is made for compassion fatigue work and was a big hit at the Jam.

So this brings me to my announcement: I’ve got a whole new website and new blog! 

The site is still a work in progress, but you can check out the new compassion fatigue resources I’m offering here:

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Just in case you’re wondering, Notes From a Dog Walker and DINOS aren’t going anywhere! I just needed a separate space for all my compassion fatigue offerings, which are aimed at helping animal care workers, to live.

So, let me tell you a little about why this work is super important to me:

1. No one talked to me about compassion fatigue, stress, or self-care while I was working at the shelter. When I had trouble dealing with the work, I thought I was crazy and weak. Now I know I was having a normal reaction to the stress of constantly providing care for people and animals in need and that there are things I could have done to help myself.

2. Our industry has a very high turnover rate. When we invest in training an employee, only to lose them to stress and trauma (the pay isn’t anything to write home about either), we lose their knowledge and skills too. If we want to make progress, we need people to stick around long enough to make a difference.

3. I respect the hell out of animal care workers: animal control officers, shelter workers, foster families, vet techs. If they’re working hard at making things better for animals and their people, then they’re my heroes. I want to do what I can to support them. This is a way for me to give to others what I wish I had had for myself.

I believe that compassion fatigue education and self-care practices need to be made a priority in our field. We can’t do effective, ethical work if we’re depleted, stressed, traumatized, and burned out.

We need to be well to do good.

 

So that’s why I’m dedicating so much of my time to compassion fatigue education these days. I’ll be travelling to a few organizations this fall, but in between my live workshops, I’m whipping up what I think will be my best offering to date:

A multi-week online class for animal care professionals and volunteers calledCompassion In Balance:

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The class will be a way for anyone who works with animals to easily access the resources they need to better understand and manage compassion fatigue. It’s going to be a safe online community where we can support each other each week, as we build our self-care toolbox and practice new strategies for being well, while we’re doing good. No one else is offering anything quite like it.

I’m finishing up the class design now and will be beta testing it this fall on a group of animal welfare bad asses. We’re gonna let them deal with all the first-run kinks. The class should be ready to launch this winter.

My goal is to get the class running for animal care workers and then later offer a modified version for people who own dogs with serious behavior or medical issues. Those of you who live with dogs like this may be suffering from compassion fatigue and you bet I want to support you too!

I still have a few months to go before I can roll out the classes, but if you’re interested in finding out more or just hearing from me every once in a while, may I suggest that you:

Sign up for my brand new e-letter!

 

Starting in September I’ll be sending out a monthly(ish) e-letter with news and notes on what’s shaking in relation to compassion fatigue and self care, plus highlights from DINOS and Notes From a Dog Walker too. It’s the best way for me to stay in touch about everything I’m working on, share the resources I think you guys will find helpful, and offer you special deals when the classes are ready to launch.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this summer and what I’ll be buried in this fall! I’m so excited to offer this to you guys – nothing makes me happier than connecting you all to life-changing resources that will support and empower you in your important work with animals.

So get psyched:

Boundaries are the new black y’all.

 

Are You Reacting Or Responding?

 

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I love this quote so much that I use it in all of my presentations. Why? Because I’m trying to convince a bunch of stressed out animal shelter workers that taking a few deep breaths really is the single best way to lower stress and change the outcome of a challenging situation.

Deep breathing sends a message to our brains to relax. Then our brains relay that message to our bodies, which lowers our heart rate and blood pressure, among other things. Check out this handy infographic from Dr. Emma Seppala on the science of the benefits of breathing.

The next time you want to jump over the intake desk to grab a member of the public who is excited about “donating” their dog to your shelter, pause to breathe deeply. Doing so allows you to pump the breaks and slow down, influencing your body’s automatic response to the stressful situation.

When we take the time for a few deep breaths not only does it change our physical reaction to stress, but it also buys our brain – specifically the frontal lobe (the part of our brain that we need in order to consider our options and communicate clearly) – the time it needs to snap into gear and produce a thoughtful response.

We need our higher thinking brain to be online in order to influence the outcome of the situation in a positive way for everyone involved. This takes a few seconds to happen and in the meantime we’re in reactive mode!

Each one of us reacts to stress differently, but I bet I’m not the only one who, when my stress levels are rocketing, becomes reactively rude. That’s a nice way of saying I snap at people.

Deep breathing allows me to get a handle on my reactive behavior and gives my brain time to catch up to my internal knee jerk reaction, so that I can choose to respond instead.

In his book Full Castrophe Living Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn shares the difference between a stress reaction and a stress response.

A stress reaction is when we react habitually and automatically to a situation. We aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing. We just react.

A stress response means that we give ourselves a few seconds to stop, become conscious of the situation, and then choose how we want to respond.

Reacting = stressed and not thinking

Responding = mindful and thinking

 

You know, just like dogs. Reactive dogs aren’t thinking when they’re over threshold. They’re just reacting to the trigger or stimulus that makes them feel aroused, anxious, or fearful.

We’re the same. When someone or somethings triggers me, my stress levels go up. If I’m not aware of and managing my stress, then I’m likely to show a habitual stress reaction and behave rudely.

But when I’m paying attention to my stress levels, monitoring the sensations in my body and the thoughts in my mind, and I address my needs by taking a few breaths to give my brain a moment to collect itself, then I can more easily access a calmer response.

Remember to focus on what you can control when you’re experiencing stress. It’s you. That’s it.

You always want to give yourself the opportunity to move from reactive to responsive. You’ll feel better and you’ll get better results.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when stressed, anxious, or angry, has said things that only made the problem much worse. Instead of helping to put the fire out, our stress reaction only fans the flames. And so our stress cycle continues, because now we have to resolve the original problem and need to deal with whatever fallout we’ve caused by our knee jerk reaction.

Allowing ourselves a moment to calm down means that we give ourselves the opportunity to choose to respond instead of react. Our response might be that we are more thoughtful, compassionate, or effective in how we communicate.

It might also mean becoming aware that we need to ask for help from our co-workers or boss. Or that we need to implement other stress management techniques ASAP. But breathing creates the…wait for it…breathing room to make those mindful choices.

 

Like Viktor Frankl says in that gem of a quote, it’s our response to our triggers that leads to our growth as human beings. Thoughtful responses will lead to better outcomes for all of us. But first, we have to give ourselves the space for that important reactive-responsive shift to occur. The easiest way to do that is to pause and breathe.

How will you create the space you need to respond instead of react in stressful situations? Think about it now, while you’re at ease, so that when the hot spot shows up, you know what you’re going to do to create enough space to allow for a response that will be more beneficial for the animals and people you work with and healthier for you!

 

Live From New York: It’s Compassion Fatigue Education!

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Animal Farm Foundation, located in Duchess County, NY, twice so far to present on the topics of Compassion Fatigue and self care. AFF’s annual summer internship programs, open to animal shelter and rescue workers, offer up a variety of workshops from hands-on dog training to lectures on the power of language and how to facilitate better adoptions.

The staff shared with me that in past internships, one of the recurring concerns interns brought up was how to handle burnout. So I was thrilled that we could incorporate Compassion Fatigue strategies into this year’s lineup.

Both times I had the privilege of meeting with dedicated and enthusiastic men and women who are committed to creating positive changes for people and pets in their communities around the country.

From animal control officers to volunteers, they’re all working in the challenging environment of animal welfare and I was so happy to be able to connect them to resources that will help them to continue doing their work, while also taking care of themselves.

 

The Interns Enjoying Time Off!
The Interns Enjoying Time Off!

 

But just because we’re talking about Compassion Fatigue, stress, and setting boundaries doesn’t mean we’re not having a good time!

There was a LOT of laughing around the table, especially when we realized how much we all have in common. Working and volunteering with animals presents us with unique and challenging circumstances that are often accompanied by a roller coaster of emotions – very rewarding highs and very upsetting lows.

Knowing that we’re not alone in our experiences and that there are tools to support us in this work is a powerful realization which can lead to healthy changes in our personal and professional lives.

The interns seemed to enjoy our discussions as much as I did! Here’s some of the feedback I received after the workshops:

“I’m realizing the importance of self awareness. It’s also reaffirming to have it recognized how hard it is in our field, especially when so many do not understand.” -AFF June ’14 Intern

“I felt that of all the compassion fatigue workshops, lectures I have attended over the 13 years in this field, yours was by far the most helpful and relatable.” – AFF June ’14 Intern

“I liked relating my shelter experiences with other people and with the speaker. I loved that you said to set our initial goals incredibly small so there’s no way that we can’t succeed.” – AFF May ’14 Intern

 

The internships continue through September, so I get to head back to AFF two more times this summer. In the meantime, I’m off to California at the end of this month for BAD RAP’s Rescue Jam!

High five,

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