Burnt out by Climate Change: Our Hurricane Compassion Fatigue

By Gail Ukockis | (Informed Comment) | – –

            Harvey’s destructive force on Texas and Louisiana has generated many compelling pictures and disturbing stories. Irma’s violent impact has already started in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, Jose and Katia are whirling into possible threats. Other natural disasters in the world involve even more casualties, such as the flooding in Mumbai.

            Political disasters also pose a menace to our well-being, especially the malicious decision to end the DACA program in six months. The Dreamers deserve so much better than our blundering immigration policy. I get heartsick when I think about those young people who signed up for DACA (and paid a heavy fee) but are now facing betrayal. Although I will certainly call my Congresspersons to advocate for the DREAM Act, it all seems so futile.

            Feeling helpless in the face of others’ suffering can cause compassion fatigue. As the song lyric says, “I’m all out of love.”    Dr. Charles Figley coined the term “compassion fatigue” after he became distressed from listening to soldiers’ stories in the Vietnam War. Compassion fatigue is related to secondary trauma, which I define as the shock waves that emanate from an emotional bomb blast. Social workers and other helping professionals are usually familiar with these concepts. However, concern over Trump’s presidency and other recent events may also be causing compassion fatigue among the supporters of social justice.

            For instance, the city of Dayton, Ohio is considered to be the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. Morgues became so full that the local governments had to use refrigerated vans. In this setting, I was teaching the basic facts about addiction to my social work students. Many had already experienced the effects of this epidemic: one student lost his nephew over the weekend, another had to drop out of school to raise her deceased cousin’s children, and one mother was with her young children when they saw a woman overdose in a department store restroom. Although many students expressed their motivation to help the addicts, others said that they were already burnt out by the situation. Compassion fatigue, then, can impede us from the goal of helping others. If we are suffering ourselves, how can we truly alleviate the suffering of others?

            One key aspect to fighting compassion fatigue in the helping professions is the separation between one’s personal and professional lives. This strategy can apply to a socially conscious person, since they may not realize how much news coverage has permeated their personal lives.   When I became a news junkie in the 1980s, my exposure to the TV national news consisted of one half hour a night. Cable news and news websites, of course, have increased this coverage to a constant stream of information that may or may not be important to know. Now I even get news updates on my smart phone—and yes, I do get distracted by the latest tidbit. Just because I can compulsively follow the news does not mean that it is wise. History may provide a few examples of news arriving too late, such as a battle fought weeks after a peace treaty was signed. In most cases, though, I do not need to know about every event right after it happened.

           Besides limiting one’s exposure to the news, we can also develop resilience through the avoidance of psychic numbing. We need to retain our sanity by claiming our feelings instead of retreating into apathy. Claiming our feelings, of course, may entail being called a “snowflake” by those mocking anyone’s sensitivity to the suffering of others. Snowflake or not, those who take on the burden of caring can sometimes feel vulnerable and anxious. Researchers have written studies on the impact of compassion fatigue on nurses, EMTs, chaplains, child welfare workers, and several other fields. One common finding is that self-reflection, whether through mindfulness or writing, can reduce the impact of compassion fatigue and make worker burn-out less likely.

          &nbsp The good news is that “compassion satisfaction” also exists in the helping professions. This feeling that a worker is effective in helping others is connected to the experience of connectedness with their colleagues. For those who might be feeling some despair, then, the concept of compassion satisfaction offers the hope of endurance and even possibly joy.

           Rough days are ahead for this country, rough days with no end in sight. Some of us might be directly affected by the hurricanes and other calamities, while others will be bombarded with even more images of people going through hell. It is possible to avoid compassion fatigue, though. Thousands of caring persons are going to wade through floodwaters, set up shelters, and do their best to reduce the suffering. By joining with them in spirit, we can work toward achieving our own sense of compassion satisfaction.

Gail Ukockis, PhD, MSW, MA, is an educator and social worker with an eclectic background that includes graduate studies in history. For eleven years, Dr. Ukockis taught a women’s issues course at Ohio Dominican University, which served as the foundation for this textbook. Her research interests also include HIV/AIDS, cultural competence, and human trafficking. She is author of Women’s Issues for a New Generation: A Social Work Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Caribbean Island Devastated By Hurricane Irma | NBC News

5 Responses

  1. Currently, there is an on-going major flooding disaster on every continent. Magnitude 4.3 earthquakes in Oklahoma where none existed a generation ago, an 8.5 earthquake in Mexico on the path of a CAT 2 hurricane, Katia. The Magnitude 8.5 Mexico event is along a chunk of the same fault-line system known as the San Andreas Fault in California.

    link to earthquake.usgs.gov

    Couple this Earth-bound info with a narcissistic, lying carnival-barker POTUS who can’t wait to nuke someone. Folks dropping like flies from opioids and police bullets in an emerging AmeriNazi State for white Jesus.

    As long as Americans continue to consume fossil-fuels at their current rate, build great cities on major earthquake faults, coastal flood plains or below sea level. And elect rich, unqualified •••clowns for leaders. It is really hard to find any compassion, whatsoever.

    • Well I doubt the huge earthquake in Mexico is related to the other phenomena you mention, but it is all dire.

      • Professor Cole – It is fact that humans can cause large earthquakes, as is on-going in Central Oklahoma and South Central Kansas. Oil and gas have been extracted from Central and Southern California for well over a century. In 1903, California became the largest oil producer in the U.S.

        link to priweb.org

        The San Fernando Valley has previously experience oil production related quakes as has the South Central Valley where there is fracking underway.

        As our planet gets hotter, the surface will expand and weak portions will break and shift, fossil fuel production weakens the crust.

        There appears to be little the pyro-hominid can’t damage.

        • Professor Cole – a point, “build great cities on major earthquake faults.” True, the Mexico quake was a subduction zone break which are caused by forces which can be thousands of miles away from the event itself.

          At this point in history, underestimating the effects of human behavior on our planet may not be prudent?

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