As the aftermath of hurricane Harvey ravages the Texas and Louisiana coasts, hundreds of people and organizations are working together to help those affected by the storm.
The effects of the storm will require the help of volunteers and professionals for months to come. Compassion fatigue may play a role in how well the public, and public agencies, are able to continue to respond to the urgent needs of Harvey survivors long after the storm has passed.
Compassion fatigue is generally understood as the trauma helpers experience when they work with people in crisis. But there is another way to think about compassion fatigue that may help explain why the public seems to turn a blind eye to ongoing crises. The news about Harvey, for example, can be overwhelming and result in what Gerard (2017) describes as “societal numbness in the face of suffering”.
Exploring the psychodynamics of compassion fatigue Gerard concludes that “what causes fatigue is not compassion per se, but the avoidance of anxiety”. Avoidance of anxiety can manifest as a of lack of caring as disaster recovery efforts continue for months after a devastating storm like Harvey — and helping is just as important during this time as it is during the initial crisis.
Gerard points out the important containing role that leaders in organizations must fulfill to prevent the numbing effects of compassion fatigue. That is, ideally leaders help followers acknowledge and manage the anxiety they experience in the face of stressful events like Harvey. This idea extends to the role that elected officials and community leaders must play to maintain effective disaster response efforts well into the future.
Image by Thomas B. Shea and Agence France-Presse — Getty Images