The Impact of Compassion Fatigue on Mental Health Nurses

People who work in the field of mental health offer help and support to people who are struggling with a wide range of mental illnesses. They are critical to the health and well-being of society as a whole, but working in the mental health field has its own set of challenges, including issues like compassion fatigue, which frequently impacts mental health nurses and other professionals in the field.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a type of emotional distress that can affect anyone who works with people who have been affected by trauma or mental illness. Mental health nurses, therapists, social workers, and lawyers are the most likely to develop compassion fatigue symptoms.

Mental health nurses work closely with patients, many of whom have dealt with horrific experiences in their past. Patients might be suicidal, contribute to an unsafe environment for nurses, or simply have been through things that are hard to witness. Hearing stories from patients and witnessing signs of abuse and trauma over and over again can lead to compassion fatigue, which causes a wide range of symptoms and often pushes mental health nurses to leave the profession.

Compassion fatigue is similar to vicarious trauma (which is a related issue that frequently affects people working in mental health), but is generally thought to be a little less severe. Still, it can significantly impact a person’s professional and personal life.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can cause both mental and physical symptoms. These can become severe enough that they impact a nurse’s life even when they aren’t at work. Some symptoms include:

  • Exhaustion, both mental and physical
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Reduced ability to feel empathy or compassion
  • Feeling helpless when encountering patient suffering
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Poor sleep
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Anger and irritability
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Isolation
  • Difficulty managing relationships
  • Lack of enjoyment
  • Compulsive behavior and addiction

Emotional distress caused by compassion fatigue can severely compromise a person’s ability to live a healthy and happy life. It’s important to address signs of compassion fatigue right away. Long-term compassion fatigue often leads to burnout, poor mental and physical health, and leaving the nursing profession.

Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

Although many people think that burnout and compassion fatigue are the same, there are some major differences. Although they share many of the same symptoms, there are some key differences. Additionally, compassion fatigue goes beyond burnout in several ways.

Burnout and compassion fatigue both cause mental and physical exhaustion, trouble focusing, and other issues that can affect a person’s ability to do their job. Compassion fatigue, however, can cause a person to have trouble feeling compassion or connecting with others, and can even reduce a person’s overall ability to experience empathy. It can also occur quickly, while burnout tends to be more gradual.

Preventing and Reversing Compassion Fatigue

People who choose to become mental health nurses are typically very compassionate people. That’s one of the reasons compassion fatigue can be so devastating. Being aware of compassion fatigue and knowing what to look out for is critical for preventing and reversing symptoms.

Mental health nurses need to practice self-care in order to prevent issues like compassion fatigue and burnout. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and putting up clear boundaries between home and work life are essential. Nurses should also focus on relationships outside of work and have hobbies that provide enjoyment and fulfillment.

Getting help from a therapist can also be important for addressing compassion fatigue. A therapist can recommend coping strategies and help mental health nurses manage their own mental health. Compassion fatigue is a real risk for people who support others in their mental health, and it’s important that they look out for their own well-being too.