Often mental health professionals and family members of the mentally ill become overwhelmed with the pressure to try to fix the unfixable and prolonged situations that arise for the person with severe and persistent mental illness.
If you are flirting with burnout, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma, you might feel like a low, thick, grey cloud has slowly sneaked into your life, causing decision-making to be more difficult, fun and enjoyment to be elusive, and an underlying anxiety to loom just below the surface. You might have difficulty sleeping or sleep too much, and you might find yourself too often comforting yourself with low quality snack foods or low quality, mind numbing TV programs. By the time this slow brewing condition creeps into your awareness as a real problem, you might feel you are too exhausted to make changes or learn how to empower yourself.
It is important that empowering yourself to heal from burnout and compassion fatigue cannot begin with adding "self-care activities" to your probably already too long "to do" list. More importantly, see if there is anything you can remove from your list. Add in things that don't require time you don't have. Do you commute to work? Pop in a CD of healing affirmations. Are you spending mindless hours on social media, games, or TV that are not nourishing or restorative for you? Take some of that time to go for a walk or take a nap. See if you can stock your desk/house with some healthy snacks like fruits, vegetables, and nuts; purchase a pre-made salad for lunch, and substitute herbal tea for coffee, at least in the afternoon.
In addition to these basic self-care strategies, learn a gentle, self-compassionate acceptance for what is. You can learn how to empower yourself through mindfulness and breathing practices that will release tension and lower your baseline stress. I often hear mental health professional say that things like, "I have generalized anxiety disorder." Others diagnose themselves with depression and take medications to take the edge off this vague sense of helplessness.
No matter how many times we are told that we now follow a client-centered, strengths based philosophy, the majority of public mental health agencies operate from the old-fashioned medical model where people are diagnosed and "treated" according to what the public resources will pay for and not according to what they want or need. Helper burnout can be at least partly attributed to the system of community mental health. Empathic, passionate people endure the rigors of education, thesis writing, doctoral dissertations, practicums, and internships because they envision themselves helping people with emotional pain to heal and improve their lives. Instead, many find themselves on the community mental health treadmill, saddened, disillusioned, frustrated, and unable to pay back their student loans.
Helper burnout may be one of the biggest mental health issues facing US society. Perhaps it comes as a result of the deinstitutionalization that began in 1963. The goal was to give people back their rights by no longer forcing them to remain in locked institutions, over-medicated and mistreated. The unanticipated result was leaving the most severely mentally ill folks un-medicated and living on the streets, harassed by police and victimized by criminals. This situation places so many helpers and family members in a no-win situation.
Self-empowerment cannot fix the larger issues in community mental health, but it can make you more resilient and better able to pass on an empowering attitude to clients. Relaxation, guided imagery, mindfulness, and breathing practices can do wonders to reset the body, mind, and emotions to a place of abundance and generosity. Nutrition and exercise are also important.
Lastly, is is so important to find honor in what you do, to be gracious and compassionate toward yourself and others at all times to be your best, most authentic self. I write empowering affirmations and guided imagery scripts that address anxiety, depression, trauma, and burnout. Most of these can be used for clients, family members, and professionals. You can replace stress eating and other mind-numbing activities with intentionality, taking time to eat well, exercise, and engage in activities you find restorative.
You give out a lot from yourself, and you need to be replenished to be empowered for another day.