Friday, February 9, 2024

Compassion Fatigue and First Responders


Compassion Fatigue was a term coined to describe a set of negative psychological symptoms that caregivers experience in the course of their work while being exposed to direct traumatic events or through secondary trauma.

Within the context of first responders’ work, compassion fatigue is the stress resulting from exposure to traumatized individuals in the line of duty and the negative impact on the First responder’s mental and physical health.

It develops due to a combination of prolonged exposure to trauma or traumatized people and includes the inability to emotionally disengage from the suffering of others. The negative effects of providing care are aggravated by the severity of the trauma which the First responder is exposed to. The debilitating effects of Compassion fatigue include exhaustion, anger and irritability, negative coping behaviors including alcohol and drug abuse, become emotionally detached or numb, burnout, and an impaired ability to make decisions and care for patients and/or clients.


Let’s look at some of the risk factors which can be associated with Compassion Fatigue:

  • A personal history of trauma
  • Being overworked, overwhelmed, and/or underpaid
  • Having limited professional experience and no training with Vicarious Trauma prevention
  • Working with a high percentage of traumatized children
  • Working under stressful conditions, with limited resources

 Compassion Fatigue is an erosive process. Dissociation, lack of concentration, as well as emotions like irritability and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness don't get left at work and also interfere with the individual's personal relationships. Over time, compassion fatigue—often exacerbated by stress within the organization and a lack of recognition from the community—can make first responders more susceptible to mental health issues, such as depression, burnout, and PTSD. The added pressure of public criticism and negative media coverage can further erode a First responder’s sense of support from the community and professional pride. This can further affect their overall ability to assist when encountering traumatic events in the line of duty.

  • Between 40% and 85% of helping professionals develop Vicarious Trauma, Compassion Fatigue and/or high rates of traumatic symptoms.
  • 86% of nurses had moderate to high levels of Compassion Fatigue.
  • 15% of general practitioners turned to alcohol, prescription drugs, or both to help them “deal with work pressures.”
  • 33% of Law Enforcement showed high levels of emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment. 56.1% scored high on the depersonalization scale.
  • Only 15% of Law Enforcement professionals were willing to seek personal counseling as a result of Vicarious Trauma versus 59% of mental health professionals.
  • Estimated prevalence rates of 11% for PTSD, 15% for depression, 15% for anxiety, and 27% for general psychological distress amongst ambulance personnel.

While not an exhaustive list, it definitely shows that those in the business of caring for others tend to be the most at risk.

Compassion fatigue is more likely to occur if first responders are unaware of or ignore warning signs and do not seek help from resources like supervisors, peer-support groups, or clinical practitioners. With that in mind, try to be aware of the following signs:

  • Depression
  • Frustration
  • Feelings of uselessness
  • Cynicism
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Worries you’re failing at your job
  • Constantly feeling exhausted or tired
  • Feeling the need to drink alcohol or do drugs

During a TED Talk in 2017, Patricia Smith, the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, had this to say:

“Caregivers are not good at asking for help. Asking for help is hard, no matter who you are. For nurses, doctors, teachers and more, the idea of leaving work can seem like an impossibility.

You may feel guilty or that you are abandoning your patients or students. But if you are struggling with drug or alcohol use, you need help too. Your clients, patients, and students will be happy for you.”

It's important for first responders to recognize when their work has begun to take a toll and seek support and professional help. It’s time to drop the stigma. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, it's a necessary step towards healing and maintaining overall well-being.


If you believe change is possible, you want to change, and you are willing to do the work, you absolutely CAN get your life back.”

Get your copy of The Soldier's Guide to PTSDThe Soldier's Workbook

or Acknowledge & Heal, A Women's-Focused Guide to PTSD

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