Suffering from compassion fatigue

Issue October 2014

Q: When I decided to go to law school, it was to continue a family tradition of social responsibility. I knew that it meant I would not become wealthy, and that was fine with me. And I knew that, since many new lawyers are interested in public service work, I was fortunate to land a position at a nonprofit agency that serves a clientele who are largely disadvantaged and have often experienced tragedy or abuse. What was unprepared for was the impact that working with these clients would have on me. I lose sleep worrying about some of them, and, having seen the ways that human beings and systems can treat the vulnerable, I've also lost trust in people in general. My husband has begun to complain that I am always worn out and my moments of happiness are few and far between. I am doing what I wanted to do, but not feeling very good about it.

A: Much has been observed and written about the effects of work with traumatized individuals on professionals who treat or assist them. The picture you paint is all too common. While most of the literature addresses itself to health workers, it is no less applicable to lawyers who help the same population. It may be even more problematic, in fact, since lawyers may be least likely to seek support or share their burdens.

This syndrome is known by a few names - Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Traumatization and Secondary Traumatization. While it is less severe than the post-traumatic stress likely endured by many of your clients, and is a human reaction rather than a mental illness, it has clear impact on too many people like yourself who are doing important work. When it gets to the point that even your home life is devoid of joy and positive connections and outlook, it's time to make a change.

While some professionals find that they need to modify the focus of their work or find a new job, others can reduce their compassion fatigue by making some changes, such as:

  • Carving out (without guilt) more time for self-nurturing activity.
  • Talking to others about what they are going through - so simple, yet often a very significant source of relief.
  • Being sure to include de-stressing and life balancing activities like exercise, meditation or  enjoying music.
  • Deliberate re-exposure to social/cultural activities from which they may have withdrawn.
  • Finding ways (ideally within your organization) to actively recognize and feel satisfaction in your mission as a helper to those in need, since it can be easy, in the face of virtually insurmountable societal problems to develop the sense that your efforts are not effective or meaningful.

Various lawyer organizations and lawyer assistance programs such as ours have become more attuned to the issue of Compassion Fatigue. It is surprising how much difference it makes simply for people to shed their lawyer "hat" and talk about the pressures and distressing events in their work lives, as well as more overtly developing plans for the kinds of self-supportive changes listed above. This year, we also began offering a discussion/support group as a setting in which lawyers from an array of settings involving traumatized clients can share their experience with one another and reduce their psychological burden. And we continue, as always, to offer individual consultation, and referral to other supports when indicated. These services are free and confidential, and are easily arranged by giving us a call. In addition, organizations can help counteract compassion fatigue through measures such as providing internal discussion/support forums and developing a culture that empowers and supports professionals like yourself, and keeps them connection to their mission.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Questions for LCL may be mailed to LCL, 31 Milk St., Suite 810, Boston, MA 02109 or called in to (617) 482-9600. LCL's licensed clinicians will respond in confidence. Visit LCL online at www.lclma.org.