Compassion fatigue, also known as a Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a term that refers to a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among victims of trauma and individuals that work directly with victims of trauma. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. [1] Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self doubt.[2]

Journalism analysts argue that the media has caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news shows with often decontextualized images and stories of suffering. This has caused the public to become cynical, or become resistant to helping people who are suffering. Journalism analysts cite research which shows that visual images affect brain activity in demonstrable and measurable ways.[3]


An early use of the term was in a 1981 US document on immigration policy.[4] In the early 1990s the news media in the United States used the term to describe the public's lack of patience, or perhaps simply the editors' lack of patience, with "the homeless problem," which had previously been presented as an anomaly or even a "crisis" which had only existed for a short time and could presumably be solved somehow.[5] The term was also used in 1992 when Joinson used the term in a nursing magazine to describe nurses who deal with hospital emergencies. Compassion Fatigue has been studied by the field of traumatology, where it has been called the "cost of caring" for people facing emotional pain.

Compassion fatigue has also been called "secondary victimization" (Figley, 1982), "secondary traumatic stress" (Figley, 1983, 1985, 1989; Stamm, 1995; 1997), "vicarious traumatization" (McCann and Pearlman, 1989; Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995), and "secondary survivor" (Remer and Elliott, 1988a; 1988b). Other related conditions are "rape-related family crisis" (Erickson, 1989; White & Rollins, 1981), and "proximity" effects on female partners of war veterans (Verbosky and Ryan, 1988).

Compassion Fatigue has also been called a form of burnout. The term was also used after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, where commentators noted the apparent decrease in donations for other natural disasters. This also occurred during the 2005 hurricane season.[6] Another contrasting example involves the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran.[7]

In academic literature, the more technical term secondary traumatic stress disorder may be used. The term "compassion fatigue" is considered somewhat euphemistic. Compassion fatigue also carries sociological connotations, especially when used to analyse the behaviour of mass donations in response to the media response to disasters. One measure of compassion fatigue is in the ProQOL, or Professional Quality of Life Scale.

In health care

Caregivers for dependent people can also experience compassion fatigue; this can become a cause of abusive behavior in caring professions. It results from the taxing nature of showing compassion for someone whose suffering is continuous and unresolvable. One may still care for the person as required by policy, however, the natural human desire to help them is significantly diminished. This phenomenon also occurs for professionals involved with long term health care. It can also occur for loved ones who have institutionalized family members. These people may develop symptoms of depression, stress, and trauma. Those who are primary care providers for patients with terminal illnesses are at a higher risk of developing these symptoms. In the medical profession, this is often described as "burnout": the more specific terms secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma are also used. Some professionals may be predisposed to compassion fatigue due to personal trauma.[citation needed]

In lawyers

Recent research shows that a growing number of attorneys who work with victims of trauma are exhibiting a high rate of Compassion Fatigue symptoms. In fact, lawyers are four times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public. They also have a higher rate of suicide and substance abuse. Most attorneys, when asked, stated that their formal education lacked adequate training in dealing with trauma. Besides working directly with trauma victims, one of the main reasons attorneys can develop compassion fatigue is because of the demanding case loads, and long hours that are typical to this profession.[8]

In charitable giving

Compassion fatigue can be seen in the resistance of the general public to give money to charity or other good causes due to overexposure. This is exacerbated by the increasing practice of charitable organizations requesting a potential patron's bank details for ongoing monthly donations rather than one-time donations. "Overexposure" in this context refers to the repeated solicitation of donations or voluntary efforts from civilians by charitable agencies, often triggered by natural disasters, or disasters of a large scale. Some people become frustrated by constantly being solicited for donations or they become skeptical that most of the money will ever reach the needy.[citation needed] In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, many givers were frustrated with the Red Cross's handling of donations; they believed that their donations would go to the families of the victims, when the Liberty Fund only paid out approximately 1/3 of its receipts to families and dedicated the rest to long-term planning.[9]

See also


Further reading

  • Barnes, M. F (1997). "Understanding the secondary traumatic stress of parents". In C. R. Figley (Ed). Burnout in Families: The Systemic Costs of Caring, pp., 75-90. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
  • Beaton, R. D. and Murphy, S. A. (1995). "Working with people in crisis: Research implications". In C. R. Figley (Ed.), Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized, 51-81. NY: Brunner/Mazel.
  • Figley, C. R. (Ed.) (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. NY: Brunner/Mazel.
  • Kinnick, Katherine N.; Krugman, Dean M.; and Cameron, Glen T. (1996). "Compassion fatigue: Communication and burnout toward social problems." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 73:3, 687-707.
  • Kottler, J. A. (1992). Compassionate Therapy: Working with Difficult Clients. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Joinson, C. (1992). "Coping with compassion fatigue". In Nursing, 22:4, 116-122.

External links

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