Tips For Coping With Bad-News Burnout

Is the slick of bad news about the oil spill bringing you down? Psychologist and "compassion fatigue" expert Charles Figley, of Tulane University’s School of Social Work, explains why negative news can be overwhelming and suggests strategies for taking a mental vacation.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Are you - you're feeling, like, I am overwhelmed by the slick of bad news about the oil spill. Maybe you've been watching that baseball mistake, umpire mistake? I'll put it that way - bad call. The bad call this week about the perfect game. You know, and things are just - you can't get away from some of the bad news, you know? We're waiting and watching and hearing all about the leak and other kinds of stuff.

Where do you turn to? How do you get a break? How do you give your head - right? How do you take a mental vacation? You're not going to go down to the beach. If you're in Florida or down in the Gulf and take a vacation there, there's nobody at those beaches. So what about a mental vacation?

Charles Figley is a distinguished chair of Disaster Mental Health and a professor in the graduate school of social work at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. Welcome to the program.

Professor CHARLES FIGLEY (Social Work, Tulane University; Distinguished Chair, Disaster Mental Health): Thank you. I'm very depressed now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, you know, you're in New Orleans.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes.

FLATOW: I mean, people must be just - how do you describe the state of people's mental health down there?

Prof. FIGLEY: You mean, in New Orleans?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. FIGLEY: Very good.

FLATOW: Yeah?

Prof. FIGLEY: Frankly.

FLATOW: That's good. That's good to hear. We're not so fortunate up here, I don't think.

Prof. FIGLEY: Well, you know, when you have been buffeted by all kinds of disasters, you become pretty effective at dealing with it. And I think a lot of people are saying this is nothing compared to what I went through in terms of my house being flooded and having to, you know, rebuild my neighborhood. Now these are real thrivers down here, not just survivors.

But it's interesting, your - the producer Flora Lichtman, I think, called me and asked me to be on the program. And she said that - at your staff meeting, you all were depressed thinking about another story of BP.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, yeah, every week - you know, every week, we're following it. It's our job. And we do it gladly, to talk about the oil disaster. But after a while, we can, you know, we've talked about it like it's battle fatigue.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yeah.

FLATOW: But it's - you call it compassionate fatigue.

Prof. FIGLEY: Well, yeah. I mean, it is. By the way, if you don't have any compassion, you're not going to get compassion fatigue. So, you know, welcome to the human race. I mean, if we didn't care, if we didn't have empathy for whatever we're focusing on, like the people down here, then there would be no issue here.

But, yeah, we get filled up. And actually, welcome to the world of many councilors, nurses, social workers, you know, police officers that work every day in this kind of environment. And what we tell them is what I would say to the general public: You need to read your body. And if you're not getting enough sleep as a result of whatever we're talking about, whether it's the oil spill or whatever - if friends tell you, gee, what's going on? You seem rather tense. You need to do something about it. And I really call this self-care. It's very appropriate.

And the thing that some people feel when they feel this way, like - in almost, it's like the news is toxic, just like a friend maybe toxic. And we kind of steel ourselves every time we are exposed to either one. It requires us to be well aware of our body, well aware of our environment, and to notice that we feel depressed as a result of whatever we're talking about here, and specifically this horrific oil spill. I mean, eating...

FLATOW: Should we, well, simply just turn off the news?

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes, actually, to be brief. You know, we can't obviously run away and hide forever, but yes. We do need to take breaks. We need to recognize that turning off the television or turning a channel, et cetera, when we feel overwhelmed is actually good for us. And it probably will enable us to do a more effective job or perspective on whatever we're concerned about.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what about, you know, getting yourself away from the scene? If you were listening to the news or watching the news in the same place or in your house, how about getting out and doing something else...

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes.

FLATOW: ...to change the scenery?

Prof. FIGLEY: Absolutely. I mean, in the workshops that we have done and the various training courses, either at Tulane or elsewhere, we focus on attending to yourself and what you need for pleasure. What takes -what's required for you to be able to spring back? You know, what recharges your batteries and to do those kinds of things.

But again, it's part of the universal human condition. We are conditioned to be empathic and compassionate. It enables us to establish and maintain friendships and good relationships among our family members and neighbors, et cetera. And that's all good. And it leads to very positive emotions. But they're also is a cost to that caring. And if we don't do something about that, then we will turn our backs to far more things than just what initially shocked us or depressed us.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Sabrina in Boise. Hi, Sabrina.

SABRINA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

SABRINA: Thanks so much for taking my call. I just - I totally related to this subject, I had to call, because I do experience this. I'm a single mom. I've been on disability for the past year, and now I'm actually unemployed. You know, I've got four kids. I listen to the news all the time too, which makes it even harder sometimes to want to stay positive. But one thing I don't hear people talk a lot about is spiritual health. And the one thing that I do every day is - I pray. I pray in the morning. I pray when I go to sleep. I pray with my children. We attend church together.

And I think that, you know, when your physical health is not something you can depend on and - you know, people talk about their mental health and their financial health, but you know, if you have your spiritual health to rely on and you think that maybe there's a greater - and you believe that there's a greater plan to everything - I mean, I don't know how I'd get through the day without that.

Prof. FIGLEY: I completely agree. And there should be no - the border between mental health and spiritual health should be seamless, if there's any line at all, without a doubt.

SABRINA: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Prof. FIGLEY: When we're traumatized, and when we hear sadness in the world, we think about what we can do. And there's actually, for many people, physical pain in wanting to help, to - our heart goes out to them. And if we're able to help, it feels wonderful. But if you're not able to help at all, then often - other than, you know, being educated about the situation and maybe using that later to help - it's toxic, and you have to take a break from that. You have to gain control of your environment sufficiently to take care of yourself. When we get on a plane, they say put your mask on first and then help other people. Sometimes we don't do that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This disaster seems different than others in that in others you can see like a light at the end of the tunnel, right? It doesn't seem to be - first, as you say, there's doesn't seem to be anything that we can do as individuals to help with this.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes. That's exactly right.

FLATOW: Right? I mean - and we don't know when it's going to end.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes.

FLATOW: And those two - the unknown and the feeling of helplessness, I would think, really contributes - works off one another.

Prof. FIGLEY: Exactly. I mean, it's as simple as asking the question, can I do anything about this now? Is this additional information going to be useful to me? If the answer is no, turn it off.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I mean, that's why I think people are sending dog fur and their own hair because there's nothing else they can do.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes. Anything that people suggest as an action. But you're right. It's an emerging, evolving catastrophe, and we're only seeing bits and pieces of the impact. Those of us in New Orleans and, especially in Southern Louisiana, feel it immediately.

All the people that were traumatized by Katrina, the storm Rita, the flooding of the levees, all of that kind of conditions everyone not only to be aware of other people's pain, but also to go back to those elements that enabled them to survive. And down here it's just guts, music, great food, festival. In other words, you have to balance the pain and suffering that you're feeling or other people are feeling with joy. And sometimes we forget what we want, what gives us joy.

FLATOW: And you may need help doing that.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes, without a doubt. And certainly turn to friends and family, because this is not a mental illness. This is a need. This is a human universal need, to be connected to other people. When we see people suffering, our heart goes out to them in part because it will help us out. We're expecting other people to help us out when we help others out. So it's a very, very strong feeling. And then if we can't do anything about it, then it hurts. So, again, turn to joy, turn to something that you can do.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Helen in Ithaca, New York, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

HELEN (Caller): Oh, hi. Welcome - I mean, thank you. I had one little problem with agreeing with his philosophy of empathy and things. But I think we do need to stay informed. I mean, you can't even know what's happening to your neighbor unless you're staying informed. And it could - it is painful because there's a lot of bad things that are happening right now. But you do need to stay informed and you - I don't think -once in a while, we know that like you're, you know, you're done, you know? Turn off the television or radio or whatever. But you've got to keep track of what's going on, no matter how bad it is because we're all in this boat together. So we've got to keep focused on this. And nothing is going to happen unless we're on the backs of our representatives getting them to do what's right, calling them and stuff. So I don't think we should go to la-la land and, you know...

FLATOW: Well, you know, that's a good point. You know, back decades ago, people got mad as hell and took to the streets and just didn't want to take it anymore. We don't see much of that on a national scale unless -you know, the Tea Party is an example of that.

HELEN: No, I don't think so.

FLATOW: We don't see much of that kind of, you know - we're just mad as hell and that's how we're going to express our - get it off our chests.

HELEN: Yeah. Because we're all like watching soap operas or something. I'm not sure, but...

Prof. FIGLEY: Yeah. I totally agree with you. I think we all ethically need to be totally focused on this. But what I'm saying simply is to take a break from time to time. I mean, we're studying combat medics. They don't - when they get off duty, they don't get off duty. They keep worrying about the guys and gals that they're taking care of. You will wear yourself out. The best social advocates are those who take care of themselves and choose their battles and are smart about it. So I totally agree that that's - we need to keep our eye on the prize, definitely, but take breaks as we need it.

FLATOW: It's Carol in Owensboro, Kentucky. Hi, Carol.

CAROL (Caller): Hi. Thank you.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

CAROL: Comment. I am an MSW with...

FLATOW: You're a social worker.

CAROL: Yes, I am.

FLATOW: Turn the radio off. That might help.

CAROL: I'm sorry.

FLATOW: Turn down the radio.

CAROL: I will. I'll turn it off.

FLATOW: Yeah. Go ahead.

CAROL: I am an MSW. I have a CSW. And I teach Master's level social work programs in Western Kentucky University. My comments are: I believe that when I teach, I tell my students that they need to give themselves permission to take care of themselves. I think that's the big part of...

Prof. FIGLEY: Yeah.

CAROL: ...any part of what we do.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes.

FLATOW: Charles?

Prof. FIGLEY: Good. Yeah. In other words, you're teaching social workers to focus on other people and in effect helping other people, but they have to give themselves permission...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. FIGLEY: ...to take care of themselves. Otherwise they're not going to do it.

FLATOW: Talking with Charles Figley on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

In the few moment left, Charles, given - can you give us any other - you said be joyous, go out and have a good meal.

Prof. FIGLEY: Well, I will certainly do that. But I want to mention, a couple of people talked about the role of the media. And there's another book on compassion fatigue that was written by Susan Moeller, and she's at the University of Maryland. She's a journalist, but she's also a journalist professor now. And she wrote about compassion fatigue, and her subtitle was "How Media Sell Disasters, Famine, War and Death." And she's suggesting basically that the media contributes to this sense of compassion fatigue and a certain degree of helplessness.

I don't agree with her completely. I think some of it is accidental. But nonetheless, I think we - it reinforces the notion that sometimes the media, whatever form it is, is toxic, and that we have to, you know, do something about that.

Another thing that is, I think, important, we need to, as someone else says - actually right at the end of the last segments, Sylvia mentioned that we need to be hopeful. We need to look for the good. And by doing that, it will bring us back into the game. It will bring us into a focus on what we should be doing. What is - what's an opportunity that we can't overlook? And as a result, there may be some positive things that will come out of this. But unless we focus on those issues and see that as important as anything else, it's not going to happen.

FLATOW: And so let's try to accentuate the positive, as they used to say.

Prof. FIGLEY: Yes, that's right. Yeah, I mean, it's not the notion of being a Pollyanna. It's not a notion of wanting to hide and only watch soap operas. It's the notion of knowing what your limits are and being self-aware. There have been probably - I don't know - 300, 400 studies associated with the role of positive emotion. And what's very interesting about that is that positive emotion is associated with building and developing strong ties among family members, friendships, et cetera, but there's a cost to that caring. And the cost sometimes complicates those particular relationships.

But when we think about professionals like social workers, psychologists, nurses, et cetera, who every day must deal with these issues, I think we can learn a lot from them. So if your staff has experienced a certain degree of compassion fatigue by covering this oil spill catastrophe, you have experienced at least a little bit of what these men and women experience every day.

And it's not to make anyone feel guilty that they're not doing that, but it's simply that these folks have to, by necessity, in order to save their career and their job, to be able to thrive in this kind of environment. And not just survive, but actually thrive. Can't wait to get to work in the morning, that kind of idea. And much of this is associated with empathic discernment. It seems a little highfalutin maybe, but it's essentially being discerning about how much empathy you can give as well as being discerning about how much you can take.

We work with patients and clients all the time making fine-tune discernments on whether we should push them, encourage them, slow them down, et cetera. Well, we're finding that we need to do the same thing for ourselves. We need to be more discerning in that regard.

FLATOW: We've run out of time. I want to thank...

Prof. FIGLEY: (Unintelligible)

FLATOW: Charles, it's okay. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Prof. FIGLEY: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Charles Figley is a distinguished chair of Disaster Mental Health, and professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at Tulane University. That's down there in New Orleans.

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