9 Steps to Avoid Compassion Fatigue Without Failing to Care

The term “Compassion Fatigue” has been used to describe the reluctance of donors to keep giving after the initial wave of appeals connected with large disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami, 2005 Hurricane season, 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake and Myanmar Cyclone, or this month’s Haitian quake.  Charities realize that the window of opportunity to solicit funds is typically only open for three to six weeks and so the pressure to bring even greater exposure and more insistent appeals is even stronger.  However, the underlying cause of “Compassion Fatigue” is not just cynicism or stinginess on the part of donors but something more serious that those who work hands-on in humanitarian causes are more familiar with; Secondary Traumatic Stress.

Traumatic Stress is brought on when we experience events that are highly abnormal.  Our organization, OperationSAFE is dedicated to helping children who have gone through trauma such as disasters, abuse, trafficking, and extreme poverty.  These children have a difficult time functioning in normal life after what they have been through.  Typically, they “handle” this inordinate stress by trying to block it out or withdrawing within themselves.  Hopelessness and despair are common.  However, traumatic stress is not limited to the children alone, but also to those who care for them, whether it is the family or humanitarian workers.  As these caregivers hear their stories and witness their suffering, the very same responses naturally occur – a strong desire to withdraw and the loss of hope that anything will actually make a difference.

When we train volunteers and teach parents how to deal with trauma in children we also give them suggestions on how to keep themselves from developing Secondary Traumatic Stress Syndrome, in some degree the same suggestions are helpful for all of us as we struggle to keep a heart of compassion in the midst of unrelenting bad news from Haiti.

9 Steps to Avoid Compassion Fatigue Without Failing to Care

The Best Way to Care for Others is to Care for Yourself!

In the field we know that lives are depending on us so it is vital that we take care of ourselves so that we can care for them,

  • Eat, Sleep and Relax as you normally would,
  • Make sure to Exercise Physically to help relieve stress,
  • Avoid the use of Chemicals to either enhance performance or induce rest.

Share the Care!

If there is only a one-way flow of stress coming in, it rapidly becomes too much to bear.  One way to reduce the strain is to share it in part with others,

  • Talk about the things that are heavy on your heart with friends and supporters,
  • Journal, write a blog, send an e-mail to a friend, tweet,
  • Pray, meditate, or have a small group discussion with others who care.

Look for Signs of Hope!

Unfortunately, bad news is news.  Good news doesn’t often make the front page unless it is dramatic.  However, there are less dramatic stories of hope that surround us every day.  Be on the look-out for the signs of life returning to normal.

  • Make a point of writing or sharing one good thing that happened each day,
  • Look for lessons that can be learned even in the midst of the worst situations,
  • Celebrate even the smallest victories and personal accomplishments.

I believe that one great contributor to compassion fatigue in the public is that the media overexposes the need and underexposes the great response and difference that is made in people’s lives.  This is the nature of the media of course and it is much easier to report the thousands dead than to find each story of individual lives that recover.  Another contributor to compassion fatigue is the vast scale of donations that are given to charities and the lack of communication of the results.  Donors are given a full disclosure of the pain and suffering but are deprived of the hope and results needed to relieve the trauma they have been exposed to.

My recommendation for those who seek to be compassionate without fail is to become personally involved with a smaller charity – volunteer for hands-on work, give time to be on their board, lend them some of your passion and creativity and share in the the reward of seeing lives changed for good.


67 thoughts on “9 Steps to Avoid Compassion Fatigue Without Failing to Care

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    • Jonathan Wilson

      I put 3 main headings,
      Care for Yourself
      Share the Care, and
      Look for Signs of Hope
      and then gave three practical ways of doing each of these for a total of nine. Hope it helps.

  9. Nannidale

    I guess I have “compassion fatigue.” I have lost faith in the large, “trusted” charities to which I have donated for Haiti. I see no sign that my donation has been used to help, or even used at all. I am reluctant to give more – and were I to give more, I don’t know who would use it well.

    The only sense of hope I have found for Haiti is on Twitter, where I am part of a group of people who communicate with those on the ground to find help in individual situations. I’m on the periphery of the group; I mostly tweet and re-tweet, but at least I’m doing something.

    My greatest frustration is the inability, despite millions of dollars in donations, of the NGO’s to provide for the fundamental physical needs of the people – water, food, shelter, medical care and sanitation. With rains in full force and hurricane season coming, there are still so many without shelter – lack of shelter for the victims of the quake is my main concern.

    I am discouraged, but I keep trying to help. The question that runs constantly through my mind is, “Where has all the money gone?” I guess I’ll never know.

    Keep up your good work with the children, and thank-you for this post. It makes me feel that I am not alone in my helplessness.

    • Jonathan Wilson

      I have personally been to disaster aftermaths in the US, Japan, China, Indonesia and Haiti and many other places where ongoing poverty creates similar problems and I have to say that Haiti is one of the most challenging situations I have ever seen. At this time it is not possible for the government of Haiti, foreign governments, NGO’s, or the UN to meet all of the needs. You will continue to see terrible news coming from Haiti. But at the same time, many groups are doing excellent work and ARE meeting the needs of those that they can. I applaud that despite your discouragement you keep trying to help. That is exactly how most of the true heroes working in Haiti feel right now.

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