Increased levels of stress and trauma create high levels of compassion fatigue in schools

April 1, 2020 — by Kavita Sundaram
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As compassion fatigue become more common in every day school campuses, students and teachers continue to get educated on what it is and how to cope with it.

With the current pandemic of COVID-19 raging a wildfire throughout the world, countries have been exposed to multitudes of losses and horrors. With thousands of people hospitalized or dying, financial depletion and unemployment surging, schools closing, and doctors and nurses working overtime, one of the greatest tolls the world is facing is emotional. 

The tragedy that is coronavirus affects everyone, especially those victim to it and the doctors and nurses who work against it. So with hospitals constantly being flooded with patients in dire circumstances, and hospital workers constantly being surrounded by severe sickness, another major problem that COVID-19 has unearthed is secondary traumatic stress. 

Secondary traumatic stress, more often known as compassion fatigue, occurs when someone exhausts themselves to the point of indifference by over-empathizing with the emotional stress of others. 

As Open College puts it, victims of compassion fatigue suffer from countertransference, where they put themselves in the shoes of someone else who has been through a stressful situation. By doing this, they empathize completely  and become just as emotionally stressed as them. Over time, in severe cases, this causes them to lose the ability to empathize.  

Compassion fatigue most commonly affects social workers such as nurses, first responders and therapists due to their regular exposure to the extreme difficulties and struggles of others.

According to Psychology Today, 86.9 percent of emergency workers surveyed reported symptoms of compassion fatigue, such as physical and emotional exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and irritability. Along with this, 90 percent of physicians said that their work indirectly made their family life suffer. 

In the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and health-care workers are at a greater risk of developing compassion fatigue. According to Magellan Healthcare, the long work hours and limited resources that doctors face as a result of the virus, can lead to exhaustion and compassion fatigue. WWMT news even said that doctors fighting coronavirus are at higher risk of compassion fatigue, and possibly even PTSD.  

Although social workers are most susceptible to compassion fatigue, it can occur in anyone acting as a caregiver, especially young teenagers. In fact, teenage compassion fatigue commonly stems from being put in the position of a caregiver, campus supervisor and SHS parent Helen Jarrett said. While professional caregivers often have training to deal with caring for others, everyday people, especially teenagers, do not. 

“Some students have parents that are struggling with mental health, and they often have to process it with their 16- or 17-year-old brains,” Jarrett said. “The students are not only required to get all of their school stuff done, but when they get home, they then have to take care of their parents. That's a big drain on someone so young because they haven’t had the life experience to be doing so.”

According to the American Psychology Association, 1.4 million young people between the ages of 8 and 18 act as caregivers in their families. Of these, 400,000 children are between the ages of 8 and 11. 

For these students, the stress of acting as family caregivers as well as the stress of academics and school can build up to severe compassion fatigue. According to an article by Today’s Caregiver, this can often lead to depression and worsened performance in school. 

Jarrett said compassion fatigue can also occur simply as a result of overworking oneself and being surrounded by others’ stresses as well. High schools in the country have become a melting pot of different backgrounds, experiences and varieties of traumas, all of which can affect everyone in the environment.

For teens in often stressful and diverse high school conditions, compassion fatigue can be prevalent.

For sophomore Harshini Velchamy, being surrounded by the stress of others definitely took a toll on her own outlook and perspective.

“There was a time when a lot of my friends were getting pressure from their parents and were really stressed, so they would call me every day and cry to me over FaceTime,” Velchamy said. “I don’t mind it, but I realized I was sad all of the time just because of the secondhand emotions.”

Jarrett said the ability to absorb the emotions of one's surroundings is something that is innate in every human being, especially younger people who aren’t experienced in dealing with secondhand trauma. It can also occur in those who are more experienced in dealing with the struggles of others. According to NAESP, this is something that occurs most often in those constantly surrounded by people, like teachers.

Among schools, as an article by the NAESP puts it, an increase in the number of students who have dealt with trauma has caused the number of teachers and administrators susceptible to compassion fatigue to go up. Along with this, the number of students susceptible to compassion fatigue has increased as well. 

“Teachers that go into K-12 education are generally compassionate beings, much more so than college professors,” assistant principal Kerry Mohnike said. “Every once in a while I hear of a teacher who becomes aware of the difficulties of a student. It can break through the armor they’ve put on, and they get very drained emotionally.”

 While teachers want to be empathetic and help, they don’t get the same training to deal with second hand trauma that therapists and counselors get.

EDU Trends says teachers are encouraged to be empathetic, but in order to understand what their students are going through, they inadvertently suffer with them. While it might be expected for teachers to cope with students’ trauma, increased levels of trauma in school environments make the roles of administrators and teachers far more difficult. 

“Considering the amount of time teachers spend with their students, they almost become pseudo kids,” Jarrett said. “I know if I’m dealing with a student that has had a bad day, my heart genuinely aches for them, and I have to go and lift myself up afterwards.” 

In a high school campus, secondhand exposure to trauma can affect anyone. However, according to Jarrett, one way it can be prevented is through self-care.

Jarrett said someone who does not have the strength to care for themselves might have a harder time caring for others and could therefore be more prone to compassion fatigue. 

“When you go on an airplane, they say you must make sure you put on your mask before you help everyone else, otherwise your help won’t be as effective,” Jarrett said. “It's the same for compassion fatigue.” 

Jarrett said taking time to care for oneself is vital in order to avoid compassion fatigue. This can include small things such as getting boba with friends, reading a good book or anything else that helps recharge. 

“I’ve seen kids having down days and weeks, and I don’t know whether or not that has the label of compassion fatigue,” Jarrett said. “But when you look at all the symptoms of compassion fatigue, we definitely have it happening in our school.”

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