Updated: Feb 8, 2020
By Gabriel Cabrillas, MSW, LSW
In respect to Mental Health Awareness Month it is important to recognize the mental health needs of our suffering brothers and sisters, as well as those who dedicate their lives to helping them. Now, full disclosure, I am not a 9-1-1 Telecommunicator (TC). I serve as a mental health therapist in Southern Indiana and work with families involved with the Department of Child Services. I specialize in working with traumatized children. I considered how our professions overlapped and realized that on many occasions, the strenuous journey that my clients are on begin with a phone call to you. Over time I have found that the trauma these individuals have experienced was having an unforeseen effect on my own mental state.
Trauma is a hot ticket word in the mental health community. Merriam-Webster provides three definitions for trauma:
• A disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.
• An emotional upset.
I have found that all three of these definitions can cohabitate within one series of events. For instance, a child may be subjected to an “injury” which in turn warrants a call to a TC requesting assistance. Due to the trauma of the abuse the child develops a “disordered behavioral state” after experiencing an “emotional upset.” The child in this vignette is the first to be traumatized, but often overlooked is the trauma that the TC is exposed to. Hearing trauma happening in real time is a difficult task, much less spending several hours taking calls of this nature. It takes a high level of compassion for our communities to serve in this capacity, but the mind can only handle so much secondary trauma. The buildup creates what has come to be called compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue has been described as the “cost of caring" for others in emotional and physical pain. (Figley, 2015) A more common term for compassion fatigue is burnout. Work related demands and professional role conflict can create burnout for service providers. Compassion fatigue can present in a number of ways. Françoise Mathieu, founder of Compassion Fatigue Solutions, created a list of compassion fatigue symptoms that include:
• Lack of empathy
• Difficulty maintaining relationships
• Dissociation or intrusive thoughts
• Increase in alcohol or drug use
• Missing work
• Impaired job functioning
• Hypersensitivity or insensitivity
I believe that anyone who chooses a career of serving others must practice self-care. We best serve our communities when we find a balance between our work and our personal lives. All too often I have found that those who excel at helping others struggle with helping themselves, myself included. We have the right intentions of wanting to meet our work goals, but start making small compromises in our daily lives and begin creating an imbalance.
What can we do to combat compassion fatigue? The first step is to identify where in your life you need to make changes. While performing research in graduate school I found that the University of Buffalo's School of Social Work had a large amount of public content focused on self-care. Click here to be taken to their self-care assessment. This assessment will help you explore areas of your life where you may have less balance than you need. Once you have identified these areas of need you can begin to address them.
The Wheel of Self-Care is another tool that can be used to help identify areas of life that may require more attention. The wheel pictured here is split into five sections. The Social/Attachments section asks you to observe and build upon your relationships with others. The Emotional & Mental Health section looks at how you are nurturing your mind and addressing your emotions. The Physical Health section reminds you to take care of your body, such as monitoring your diet or incorporating exercise into your week. The Spiritual Practices section asks you to be cognizant of how spirituality affects your daily life. The Meaningful Work section is referencing the work you put in outside of your career, and asks if you are fulfilling any desires or aspirations you man have.
Everyone practices self-care in different ways. Personally, I try to block out one hour per day to focus on my own interests. Typically I’ll practice my guitar or play a few games on FIFA. Of course I cannot always accommodate this, but at the very least I will make sure to sit in my car at the end of the day for an extra five to ten minutes with my favorite podcasts on. These activities help me clear my mind after a long day, but only address the mental health aspect of self-care. I struggle the most with my physical health. When I get stressed I overeat, and eat more unhealthy foods. I’ll find myself stopping for Taco Bell instead of packing lunch at home. Time becomes the scapegoat for this behavior. I’ll rationalize that it takes too long to prepare food, when in reality the drive through takes as much time if not more. There are a number of ways that we can improve our self-care routines, but like anything else it takes practice to master. I will include a link to the University at Buffalo’s self-care exercises and activities page that I have found helpful and still reference today. I hope you can utilize some of these exercises and adapt them to your own self-care routines.
Gabriel Cabrillas is a home-based behavioral therapist out of Evansville Indiana. He graduated from the University of Southern Indiana in 2015 with his Bachelor of Social Work, and again from the University of Southern Indiana in 2017 with his Master of Social Work. Gabriel obtained state licensure in Indiana and provides therapy through Maglinger Home Based Services. Gabriel has received advanced training in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and EMDR-Sand tray therapy, and is working toward certification in EMDR. Gabriel has been married to his loving wife Katelyn for seven years. Together they have two beautiful daughters Parker (2 years) and Charlie (2 months).
Figley, C. R. (2015). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Mathieu, F. (2017). Running on Empty: Compassion Fatigue in Health Professionals. Rehab & Community Care Medicine. Retrieved May 15, 2019.
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