Is Compassion Fatigue Killing Aussie Goodwill?

Charity begins at home, but what if you don't have one?

Last week, a friend told me about the latest teen suicide in our neighborhood. There has been a cluster of such deaths over the past few years that initially provoked the typical chain of emotions of shock, horror and sadness. But this time was different. What I felt was a numbing detachment, similar -- I have since learned -- to the symptoms of ‘compassion fatigue’.

That's a term used to describe symptoms that healthcare workers and military personnel working on the front line of accidents and emergency may experience.

Broadly speaking, it is the way they condition themselves to neutralize their emotions to cope with the sadness in their jobs and it can have similar symptoms to the burnout caused by stress.

However, because it causes depersonalisation and reduces empathy, it can be also be highly dangerous for people in the care of others as it can lead to compromise of that care, which means it has to be carefully monitored.

More recently, this term has been used in the context of our reaction to bad news in the media.

Think about it: in the past few weeks alone we have witnessed the devastating impacts of earthquakes, flooding, a bridge collapse and terrorist attacks in the Middle East; not to mention the ongoing reports from Nauru, the infiltration of far right propaganda into our politics and our latest government spill.

As Chris Marlow says in his book Doing Good Is Simple: Making A Difference Right Where You Are: “I discovered that compassion fatigue is a real thing. Emotions, so strong at first, can easily shift into apathy. The subsequent guilt is paralysing; it can prevent us from ever doing anything and freeze us into inaction.”

While it's tricky to gauge whether the news has worsened or if we are simply overwhelmed by the number of ‘causes’ that require our attention, no one can doubt how much our exposure to it has increased with online media.

But the real question, (I believe), is whether our compassion has decreased, or our privilege has increased -- because there are signs that we are slowly regressing to the beliefs of our grandparents and their advocacy that ‘charity begins at home’.

How badly news affects us does vary from person to person, although what is obvious is that it is more distressing to the vulnerable. For example, suicide can trigger copycat suicides -- which may explain the cluster seen in our neighborhood recently -- an understanding that reinforces the requirement of the media to report responsibly. For some, too much bad news can impact their mental and physical state, their mood and their sleeping patterns, causing stress and anxiety.

Research carried out by Graham Davey, a professor emeritus of psychology at Sussex University in the UK confirms this. He suggests that ‘negative TV news is a significant mood-changer, and the moods it tends to produce are sadness and anxiety.’ Which is maybe why our bodies shut down when confronted by bad news, in much the same way that a child with poor emotional control will shut out overwhelming stimuli.

Statistics from 2016 show that fewer of us are ‘giving’, which may have some link to the saturation of bad news, and if such an inequity exists, where does that leave charities? If our over-exposure to bad news is causing ‘compassion fatigue’, that mind shift has the potential to damage those that need help. Charities work on the basis of pulling at our heartstrings to get to our purses, so if we start switching off news of the latest famine or war, it won’t take long for that benevolence to dry up.

So what’s the solution?

 In practical terms, the most obvious solution is to monitor how much time we dedicate to the news and social media each day. A few other tweaks to our lifestyle, such as exercise, healthy eating and relaxation techniques -- similar to the recommendations for treatment of depression -- may also help us recalibrate.

When it comes to helping others, it's perhaps important to remember that ‘giving’ has been cited as one of the greatest fulfillments in life. It is another recommendation given to those suffering from depression, to help them feel better about themselves. And in the words of Anne Frank, ‘No one has ever become poor by giving'.

Feature Image: Getty