It’s Time to Care About Not Caring
In the digital age, news is inescapable. Every day we are exposed to one trauma after another and asked to repeatedly demonstrate unwavering support and attention. However, this increasing societal pressure may have a detrimental effect on the action it attempts to encourage. The demands for emotional investment paired with the frequent horrors of the global climate could, for some, result in an inability to access their own empathy.
“Compassion fatigue” is defined as a series of coping mechanisms that stem from consistent exposure to someone who has been traumatized, according to an article published from the PubMed Central (PMC). Symptoms include excessive blaming of others, self-isolation, substance abuse, denial, apathy, chronic illness, nightmares, and a general inability to express emotion. The PMC also states that compassion fatigue can be described as “secondary-traumatic stress” in combination with “cumulative burnout.” If left unaddressed, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, these symptoms could lead youth in particular to “carry the unresolved trauma within.” While historically, compassion fatigue has been discussed only in the context of those in caregiving positions, such as healthcare workers and therapists, the conversation has recently shifted towards the rest of the population and the effects of the 24-hour news cycle on the mental health of the general public.
In previous years, young adults particularly have involved themselves in emotionally taxing discussions in the name of activism and awareness. Examples include the March for Our Lives protests for gun control, the Climate March, and the Black Lives Matter movement. While this increased global awareness has been extremely influential in implementing policy changes and garnering media attention, the consequence could be a generational outbreak of compassion fatigue. Carlos Prieto, Upper School Psychologist, believes the newer cases of compassion fatigue have not stemmed from one incident alone, but instead from a “much more longstanding and intense” exposure. In his view, the recent news stream has only expedited a feeling that had already been brewing in the minds of children and adults alike. “[The youth are] struggling to feel…a sense of normalcy” Dr. Prieto said.
This struggle holds particularly true at Packer, whose mission statement claims that their goal is to produce “empathetic, responsible, globally-minded individuals,” and whose students work hard to maintain a high level of global awareness. Valentina Lizzarazo (‘23) a representative from Packer’s Mental Health Awareness Committee, divulged her own recent bouts of compassion fatigue, which she describes as a “coming and going” feeling: “It gets to the point where you’re like, ‘okay, this is happening, but where do I connect myself to it?’” That inability to connect is exactly what makes compassion fatigue such a threat to emotional development. As Dr. Prieto mentions, to be so detached from human empathy inevitably leads to an utterly “empty” way of living, in which one only understands the world through their own inherently limited experiences. Valentina later speaks to the student experience in particular, discussing the difficulty she believes students have with “balancing things,” referring to both the increasing motivation to do something about the constant stream of “negative news,” and to the academic pressures and expectations of the average student.
Not only is compassion fatigue a risk to one’s individual mental health, but there exists another potential danger towards our collective society. For any one cause to gain traction, there must be a large portion of the population with the emotional capacity to be genuinely invested. When people are not equipped with proper coping mechanisms, they fall into the old traps of human instinct: deny, detach, disengage. Anna Gazzerro (‘23), another member of Packer’s Mental Health Awareness Committee, doubled down on the importance of paying attention to one’s own mental health and how the process of self-care is actually quite self-less.
“What you do in your life, like the way that you treat your life, and the way that you care about your life has like a domino effect that can help other people in the future,” Anna says. Dr. Prieto further warns against the societal damages to compassion fatigue:
“I don’t think you want to go through life not caring that people are going through some horrible things,” he disclosed, “because if you get tired of it, you won’t react to it when it gets worse.”
So now the glaring question: is there a cure to compassion fatigue or is society doomed to the prison of apathy?
Thankfully, there are many ways to redevelop one’s emotional capacity. In a fascinating contradiction, it seems that the best way to combat compassion fatigue is by attempting to regain some of that lost empathy through meaningful action; the cure to overexposure is more exposure. This time, however, with an approach that revolves around individual experience rather than statistics. Dr. Prieto strongly advocates for taking breaks when necessary, suggesting that even a few hours off of one’s phone and out into the world can interrupt that sense of hopelessness that defines compassion fatigue. He recommends taking direct action, whether it be donating money and resources, or going out and doing volunteer work, which can personalize issues that are otherwise met with indifference as well as create positive change to eliminate that “loss of agency,” which Dr. Prieto cites as another result of compassion fatigue. These steps would also hopefully foster a community built upon mutual trust and care, and on a connectedness that has, lately, been drowned out by story after story, statistic after statistic, trauma after trauma.
“I’m a firm believer in how resilient people are,” Dr. Prieto says. By resilience, he does not mean one’s capacity for trauma, or how much horror one person can take. Rather, he is referring to that selflessness within self-care. That strength within bouncing back, within recovering, and within reestablishing that long-lost empathy in order to be a better friend, ally, student, and global citizen.