Superstorm Sandy helpers suffer ‘compassion fatigue’
Workshop teaches recovery workers how to cope
Now it’s the helpers who need help.
Sixteen months after Superstorm Sandy hit New York, victims are still struggling to rebuild their shattered lives and the many of the people assisting them are suffering from a condition known as “compassion fatigue,” according to a trauma specialist.
Dr. Paula Madrid, special consultant to the Children’s Health Fund, led a workshop sponsored by the fund in Gerritsen Beach on Feb. 6 for healthcare workers,social service employees, community volunteer organizations and members of the clergy who have been helping the neighborhood rebuild and who might need some assistance themselves these days.
“It was well attended. Everyone seemed to be interested in the topic,” Madrid told the Brooklyn Eagle.
At the workshop, Madrid described the symptoms of compassion fatigue and offered tips on how to help relieve the stress.
Michael Taylor, founder of We Care New York, a non-profit community assistance program staffed by more than 100 volunteers, said he was glad he attended the workshop. “I feel I got a lot out of it,” he told the Eagle. “You learn how to deal with stress and about the warning signs of stress. It was valuable information.”
The Children’s Health Fund was founded 26 years ago by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and Dr. Irwin Redlener to provide medical services to at-risk children in low-income communities. The fund operates 50 “doctors on wheels” mobile clinics that travel to communities in cities around the country to offer health care.
The fund also assisted families in Gerritsen Beach and other communities in the months after the Sandy struck in October of 2012. Madrid is leading the fund’s Gerritsen Beach response.
Madrid, who has been in helping people cope with trauma since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, said compassion fatigue is more than just burnout. She said it can be defined as “the gradual lessening of compassion over time.”
Workers who hear thousands of stories of loss and bereavement from victims of natural disasters might find to find it difficult after a while to function normally. “It creates a great deal of stress. When you add in the fact at many of the recovery workers feel after all this time that they are unable to make a major difference in victims’ lives, given the enormity of the damage the hurricane caused, a feeling of hopelessness sets in,” Madrid said.
The symptoms of compassion fatigue “are similar to PTSD,” she said, referring to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“You’ll hear a recovery worker talk obsessively about one victim that they can’t stop thinking about,” Madrid said, offering an example.
Compassion fatigue sufferers exhibit signs of depression, physical ailments, such as aches and pains, deep anxieties, and sometimes engage in addictive behaviors, according to Madrid.
The results can be devastating. “A pediatrician in New Orleans killed himself after Hurricane Katrina. He was working in a traumatized environment and he just couldn’t cope,” Madrid said.
There is hope, however.
“There are ways to cope,” Madrid said. “The key is: you need to balance your life.”
Madrid suggests that recovery workers and others assisting victims practice self-care. “You need to eat well and sleep well. Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation. Make sure you give yourself downtime. Focus your mind on positive experiences. You need to give yourself an escape from the misery,” she said.
Having a supportive environment helps. “It’s important to have emotional support from family and friends,” Madrid said.
Taylor, whose organization has been on the front lines assisting Sandy victims in Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, Canarsie, and other communities, said the majority of his volunteers are hurricane victims themselves.
“A disaster brings out people’s core personalities. People who like to help people help people. People who are angry become angrier,” he said.
The fact that he still has to be out there helping Sandy victims nearly a year and a half after the superstorm hit doesn’t surprise him. “I knew right from the beginning that it was going to take years for people to fully recover,” Taylor said.
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