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Columnist Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: Turning compassion fatigue into compassion resilience

Published: 5/19/2020 3:00:10 PM

Last week was challenging for me and I spent much of the weekend hanging out on the couch with my dog and a book. I kept thinking that I should try to get out into the yard to tame my gardens but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I know that I am extremely lucky to have a job that I find meaningful, that I get to stay at home with my family, and we are safe and financially secure. No one in my house has been sick. So many people have it much worse. I am always grateful for what I have.

I am one of the lucky ones but I still often find living in “corona dystopia” to be exhausting.

As an academic dean, I work closely with college students, typically those who have a lot more to worry about than just their classes.

Students tell me a lot about their lives and struggles. They talk about their anxiety and depression, their financial struggles, uninvolved parents, and overinvolved parents. I’ve heard accounts of physical and sexual abuse, drug addiction, chronic illness, homelessness and hospitalizations.

During this pandemic I’ve heard about sick parents and siblings, parents who are working in hospitals, and parents who have lost their jobs. At least one of my students had COVID-19 this semester and a few students have experienced the death of a parent.

Students who struggled to stay organized when they were on campus found that they struggled even more once they went home and had to figure out how to do schoolwork from their bedrooms. One of my students was taking care of his nephews, letting them use his tablet and laptop during the day, and saving his own work for nighttime or trying to do it on his phone. Some students who moved home and ended up working in essential jobs were trying to get their school work done on the side, making it very difficult to “attend classes” remotely (most classes were not held in real time but some were).

Part of my job is knowing how to respond to these students and connect them to the right resources while also helping them to plan their path forward to graduation. I speak words of reassurance to so many students in the course of a week. I listen carefully so they feel heard. I echo back to them the struggles they are going through and validate their feelings, assuring them that they are not alone. I absorb a bit of sadness from each of them and doing this via phone and Zoom meetings is somehow more exhausting than meeting with them in person. By the end of the week, I’m toast.

There is a name for this phenomenon. It’s called compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress. It happens to therapists and social workers who work with victims of abuse, violent crime, war, or disaster. You might not think of these students’ challenges as trauma, but I certainly do.

I am not alone in this work. I have many colleagues at UMass who work as academic advisors. Advisors help students make progress toward their degrees, they talk about opportunities like study abroad, scholarships and internships. They also serve a role similar to mine, listening when students tell them what is going on in their lives — the good, the bad, and the distressing.

We’ve all just come through the most challenging and unsettling semester any of us has ever experienced and now my advisor colleagues are preparing to advise new college students. They’ll help them understand their college requirements, choose classes for the fall and reassure them that they will be successful whether we are online or in person. All of us are trying to figure out how to continue our work remotely this summer and I’m guessing my colleagues are also feeling pretty burned out.

Unlike therapists and social workers, advisors and undergraduate deans don’t have supervision specific to our own emotional health. We certainly talk to each other and provide support but I’m not sure that’s enough.

I know it’s not only my colleagues and me who struggle with compassion fatigue. Anyone in a helping role might find themselves in this predicament. So, what can we do about it? According to Rogers Behavioral Health, we have to build “compassion resilience” by making sure we take care of ourselves as much (and before) we care for others. This may sound easy but it’s not.

Treating ourselves with the same compassion we reserve for others takes practice. One of the first steps is to recognize when we are having feelings of sadness, distress, or overwhelm. We have to make the decision to stop and acknowledge those emotions so we have the opportunity to pivot and take care of ourselves. This will help build resilience rather than dive into the abyss and end up feeling hopeless and ineffective.

Jen Metzger, adjustment counselor at Easthampton High School, has been doing a wonderful job of sharing resources with students and families that focus on dealing with stress during this pandemic. The compassion resilience toolkit is one of those and it’s worth a look:

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira of Easthampton writes a monthly column. She is the academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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