The Compassion Conflict - National Carers Week

October is a big month! This week in Australia it is National Carers Week (16 – 22 October 2016) and we believe that taking some time to recognise and celebrate the outstanding impact that carers have on our nation is pretty bloody important.

Carers make an enormous contribution to our communities. For example it’s estimated that unpaid caring roles are valued at $60.3 billion annually – more than $1 billion per week in Australia. That’s pretty mammoth!

Particularly because at times, it must be a pretty shit thing to have to do.

During my episodes of mental illness I have not been a joy to be around. I know that during these periods my mood and my thoughts and my behaviours caused massive concerns for the family and loved ones who rallied around caring for me. Just to remain present would have required incredible emotional energy on their part.

For carers of people experiencing a mental illness there can be all sorts of concerns. They may be concerned about leaving their relative alone because they are worried that he or she will take harmful drugs, forget to take medications, take part in dangerous behaviour, or harm him- or herself during a serious episode of illness. If loved ones are constantly watching for symptoms and dealing with the impact of the illness, they can very understandably feel overwhelmed.

Some family members may find it almost impossible to soothe their own anxieties, and distract themselves from the strain of coping with their loved one. They may feel unable or even guilty to take time out for themselves - to relax, care for their own emotional and physical health, and rebuild their own coping resources. Sometimes, family members even feel guilty if they experience resentment or anger or tired or worn out or bitter. But denying these emotions can lead to exhaustion, depression, isolation and hopelessness.

They may feel isolated from others who were once very good friends. They might feel that they don't have the time to maintain friendships, or they themselves may feel the effects of negative attitudes that others may still hold  towards mental illness.

All of these situations are common and heartbreaking and tough.

But they’re the result of an act of love. And compassion.

Because deep-down this is what caregiving is about I think. Love and compassion.

But there can be a ‘cost of caring’ for others who might be in emotional and physical pain – and it can comes in the form of ‘compassion fatigue’.

Compassion fatigue is characterised by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the person’s ability to feel empathy for their loved one or their patient. It’s a broad term used to define the response to the stress of caring for people at times of crisis. If left untreated, it can cause burnout and ultimately depression.

Some of the symptoms include (but are not limited to):

  • Physiological: Changes in appetite;, trouble sleeping (sleeping too much or not enough), weight changes; chronic headaches, shakiness or anxiety, feeling nauseated, achiness in muscles or joints, or getting sick and feeling run-down.
  • Psychological/emotional: being irritable; feeling sad, tearful or dissatisfied with life in general, increased levels of stress, poor wake and sleep cycles, anhedonia (or lack of pleasure), sluggishness or fatigue, withdrawal from family and friends, and feeling exhausted or overwhelmed.

Researchers first identified compassion fatigue in the 1970s when they recognised certain psychological symptoms among health care and social service workers.

And unfortunately it is pretty common in the ‘helping professions’. When I began my career in drug and alcohol counselling, I was dumbstruck with the level of cynicism held by my colleagues and their lack of enjoyment with their career. But this is one of the most insidious aspects of compassion fatigue – it attacks the very core of what brings many people into these roles: empathy and compassion for others.

But what’s further troubling is that, I don’t reckon compassion fatigue is limited to nurses and police officers and emergency hospital staff and psychologists and welfare workers and loved ones caring for their family members with a disability or illness anymore.

It’s almost impossible to filter out the bombardment of human suffering in the world that comes through our screens and social media feeds. It can be both relentless and discombobulating. Essentially, we’re all more likely to be indirectly exposed to trauma these days which can result in emotional, cognitive and behavioural changes.

I know for me, there have been heaps of times when I have felt that my compassion has been running on empty. Sometimes it’s happened at work and it has meant I’ve felt really disconnected from my personal relationships. Sometimes it’s been in my personal life and I’ve reacted by minimising one type of loss over another. Sometimes it’s happened in my daily life where it feels like there are so, so, so many societal issues and causes that are shouting at me, asking for my compassion (and time or money) and I feel overwhelmed about which to prioritise or even how to prioritise and respond and so I isolate and do nothing.

Sometimes my compassion fatigue has gone unnoticed (particularly by myself) and I’ve ended up burnt out and eventually with an episode of depression. Other times, I’ve been more aware and managed to manage it.

The wonderful thing I’ve found is that compassion doesn’t appear to be finite. Just because our emotional tank feels empty, doesn’t mean we can’t fill it back up.

And often the best way to start filling it back up is with compassion itself. But not for others – for ourselves. Because whether we’re caring for a loved one or in a helping profession or wanting to donate to a cause, we can’t do this well unless we’ve taken care of our self first.

So to all the wonderful people out there who care for someone with a mental illness we salute you and the difficult and unrelenting and vital work that you do! May you use National Carers Week to fill your tanks up and take this opportunity to use your compassion on yourselves.

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