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Coping with Compassion Fatigue: Survival Strategies for Psychiatric Nurses

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Let’s face it: being a nurse is a tricky business; nurses manage patient health, expectations, and emotions. They support not only the patients themselves but often the patients’ families as well, and bedside manners matter; the reassurance a compassionate nurse brings to a patient is immense. Finding the time and energy for compassion can’t be taken for granted; nurses work night and day in challenging psychiatric hospitals to treat physical and mental disorders without any expectations in return. 

What is Compassion Fatigue?

The first step is to accept that psychiatric nurses can get burnt out. Compassion takes an emotional toll on the best of us, and when dealing with challenging mental health issues, compassion can be hard. But what exactly is compassion fatigue? It is defined as physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by people who care for others for an extended period of time without getting the same compassion in return. 

While this will not affect all healthcare workers, those in specific fields, such as psychiatric nursing, are likely more vulnerable, as shown by the stats like 25% of nurses describing themselves as ‘highly emotionally exhausted.’ With courses like a post-master NP certificate, the emphasis is starting to shift toward making nursing not on emotionally rewarding but emotionally safe as well. 

The Ripple Effect

The trouble is when you work in such a demanding field, to begin with, and then add the stress of compassion fatigue, the challenges multiply; you may not be able to find the energy for compassion outside of work, which will have a knock-on effect on all the interpersonal relationships in your life. This is often not even a conscious choice but a side effect of the intense emotional labor performed at work. 

The impact can be far-reaching, straining relationships with family and friends as you may lack the emotional capacity to engage with them as you once did. Increased irritability and negative affect patience, which can even result in indifference. The demanding nature of the work, coupled with the stress of compassion fatigue, creates a ripple effect that extends beyond the workplace, potentially disrupting the balance of your personal life. For this reason, it is critical to develop strategies to cope with and overcome this quite real issue. 

Self-Care 

This is all about making sure your needs are met, putting yourself first, and ensuring you approach every day in the best position possible to succeed. In psychiatric nursing, self-care is unfortunately often overlooked, but things are changing. There is growing research on how to improve overall working conditions, with suggestions like fewer hours, more psychological check-ups, and the incorporation of sanctuary rooms in hospitals for nurses. All of these suggestions will surely improve conditions, which will surely decrease compassion fatigue, but they take time. There are things you can start doing today to make a difference.

Exercise and Diet 

While this may seem obvious for too many, it is overlooked and under-prioritised. Regular physical activity and a balanced diet are crucial for good physical and mental health. Exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural mood lifters, which are great at decreasing stress, meaning if you exercise, you will already be approaching every day from a calmer place. A nutritious diet provides the necessary fuel for both body and mind. Despite the demanding nature of psychiatric nursing, it’s important to make time for these self-care activities even if your colleagues or bosses underplay the importance of either. Keeping your body in fighting shape will help manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue and enhance overall well-being, making you resilient for a long and rewarding career. 

Leisure Time 

Going beyond work-life balance to look at the things you want to do for pure happiness, not productivity or duty, can be hard. We get so caught up in working, looking after family, or meeting our friend’s needs that truly putting ourselves first is a challenge. Compassion fatigue is the result of giving ourselves to others, so taking time away can break that cycle. 

Support Networks 

Although you may feel like you’re in this alone, there is help out there. Across the US, the rise in mental health awareness and destigmatization has seen more resources placed where nurses and other frontline health workers need them. There are several mental health hotlines and a range of programs getting nurses in need therapy for free. The COVID-19 pandemic saw nurses across all specialties put under immense stress, but on the bright side, it has led to many services like the Emotional PPE Project, which pairs volunteer therapists with nurses free of charge without notifying your insurance. 

Healthcare Models 

As time goes on, healthcare models change and adapt to keep up, and psychiatric care is no different. Hospitals are starting to incorporate artificial intelligence, telemedicine, and other technological advances, which are transforming mental health nursing and could take a decent load off nurses’ shoulders. The number of psychiatric nurses in the USA has risen by 134.1% from 2013 to 2019, meaning the field is growing at an astounding rate, addressing the shortage of mental health professionals across the board and taking pressure off overworked staff. 

Ongoing innovations not only improve patient outcomes but also take pressure off mental health nurses by providing them with tools to manage their workload more effectively and avoid any kind of burnout. 

**Please note this article should not serve as medical advice; if you or someone you care about is struggling, contact one of the many helplines, your GP, counselor, or psychologist. 

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