A reflection of self-care in the mental health field

For people working in refugee camps, secondary trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue can be common occurrences. The Journal of Compassionate Health Care invited guest blogger Emily Hollingsbee to talk about how self-care can safe-guard people against such effects.

Self-care takes on many diverse methods such as making art, exercising and cooking. Image Credit: Emily Hollingsbee

According to UNHCR the current number of individuals who have had to flee their countries due to war, persecution and natural disaster is 22.5 million (UNHCR, 2017). Many of these individuals’ journeys to safety are spent in refugee camps as they wait to be allocated asylum.

Within these camps, there are fantastic organizations that are born out of philanthropic compassion and readily attending to the crisis situation. They work first hand with persons who are experiencing the psychological affects from the horrors of conflict, adversities and the complexities of displacement. There must therefore be consideration applied to the support and safeguarding of the individuals who attend to the needs of the crisis.

I want to acknowledge that the term ‘refugee’ is a label that I have difficulty with. Perhaps, due to working closely with individuals, it is uncomfortable to use a word that feels like a circumstantial diagnosis, however for ease of communication I will continue to use this term throughout this blog but I must affirm that I work with ‘people’ not a category.

Working with trauma

Attention has recently been drawn further into the field of secondary trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue. The effects of working with trauma cause me to consider how I safeguard myself and what I recommend to others based on my experience.

Losing motivation and feeling unsatisfied are also common effects of working with people who are feeling hopeless and stuck when their expectations are not met.

Self-care should begin in the first instances of choosing an organization to work with. There should be provisions for support and advice around the physical, emotional and mental impact of the working environment. The professional and appropriate personal limitations of the organization should create a boundary around the role. Recognizing and accepting these limits will allow one to continue to function effectively and safely within the work.

Educating oneself on the symptoms of secondary trauma is also helpful in recognizing ones emotional responses. Apathy and normalizing challenging behavior and emotional expressions are common effects of the work. This can result in unsafe practice for both the employees and the persons within the camp.

Losing motivation and feeling unsatisfied are also common effects of working with people who are feeling hopeless and stuck when their expectations are not met. It is imperative to recognize that when we are empathic individuals immersed in an environment that is emotionally charged we are likely to have the feelings of others reflected in our experiences.

A self-care mentality

Self-care takes on many different methods. I believe that it is not a formulaic strategy but a mentality to adopt. It requires placing importance on oneself. This might feel uncomfortable in light of the work for others in need, but in order to offer them a service of support there must be a support for oneself.

I believe that it is one’s own responsibility to question and understand our motivations, expectations and abilities to carry out the work. I also feel that we must give ourselves permission to accept that we may have personal restrictions that keep ourselves psychologically and physically safe and that is OK.

Self-care is something I learn each week. Some areas I consider are: attending weekly supervision with a skilled and external supervisor; acknowledging challenges and accomplishments; seeking support from loved ones and team members; practicing mindfulness; art making; meditating; exercising and cooking. Allowing oneself time out from discussion of the work can help with a constant feeling of concern and developing intrusive thoughts.

Self-care takes on many different methods. I believe that it is not a formulaic strategy but a mentality to adopt.

Self-care is also active in recognizing the importance of breaks from the work. The organization I am a part of runs a continuous 6-week program with 1-week breaks. This allows time for reflection, rest and recuperation, which encourages a safe practice.

Working with refugees has had a huge impact on my life and will, I believe, continue to do so. Living and working alongside another culture is an education in one’s own identity and ethnocentric views. The work is dynamic, complex and challenging, yet also a rewarding privilege. I have felt inspired, hopeful and awestruck at the human ability to resolve difficulties. At times I have also felt exasperated by the bureaucratic systemic complexities and overwhelmed by the stories of violence, anger, fear and loss.

My work within refugee camps has moments that empower and motivate me to carry out my role. I am constantly learning and feel humbled to be allowed into a community that is so engaging and generous. Even within the challenges I know that my work can be invaluable to others and I am forever grateful to those that have allowed me to gain so much in the midst of so little.

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