Before becoming a psychotherapist, I had a career in animal welfare. I’ve worn both the boots and the sandals — that’s jargon for working on the law enforcement side and the shelter side — and I’ve seen my fair share of trauma.
Whether you’re a humane officer or a shelter volunteer, a vet tech or an animal rights activist, you have likely seen, heard about, or experienced things that most people can’t even begin to understand. Long-term exposure to abuse and neglect, euthanasia, and grief-stricken clients not only can affect your work productivity and satisfaction, but it can also wear on you mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. If you feel like you care so much that it hurts, you may be struggling with compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue was first recognized in nurses in the early 1990s (Joinson, 1992) and has since been studied among other helping professionals. Traumatologist Charles Figley (1995) likens compassion fatigue to secondary stress disorder and says “the display of symptoms is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people or animals.”
It’s important to note that compassion fatigue is neither an illness nor a mental disorder. It’s not a character flaw or sign of weakness. However, if you don’t learn to manage the stress associated with helping others, your compassion satisfaction can slowly fade, leaving you feeling angry, depressed, anxious, physically exhausted, and emotionally drained. Compassion fatigue can affect your professional life and spill over into your personal life. Eventually, it may even lead to burnout, which causes some people to leave the field altogether.
Does this mean that if you choose to devote yourself to helping animals that you’re destined to a life of suffering? Absolutely not.
One of the most important advancements in animal welfare, in my opinion, is the acknowledgment that compassion fatigue exists. It’s a common topic of discussion in fields such as nursing, as well as other helping professions including police officers and mental health therapists. And although it may seem like animal welfare is the red-headed stepchild of the helping professions, the good news is that we’ve finally begun to recognize it.
When I started in the field, we didn’t talk about it. I didn’t even know there was a name for what I was going through. This needs to change because many animal welfare officers are crashing and burning. Did you know that animal control officers have the highest suicide rate — along with other helping professions such as police officers and firefighters — of all workers in the United States? (Tiesman, et al., 2015) In fact, recent research revealed that an alarming one in six veterinarians has considered suicide (Larkin, 2015).
So what does compassion fatigue look like? The following list describes some common symptoms:
- Depression or feelings of sadness
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Experiencing frequent flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares
- Fatigue or low energy
- Anger or irritability
- Isolation from others
- Appetite changes
- Loss of interest in things that once brought you pleasure
- Feelings of guilt
- Lack of motivation
- Relationship conflicts
- Feeling empty or hopeless
- Work issues (e.g., chronic tardiness)
- Feeling numb
- Low self-esteem
- Poor concentration
- Body complaints (e.g., headaches)
- Unhealthy coping skills (e.g., substance abuse)
- Negative worldview
- Suicidal thoughts