Compassion Fatigue: Helping the School Counselor Cope

Fri, Dec 19, 2014

Distance Learning, Uncategorized

By Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff
Program Director, M.Ed. School Counseling at American Public University

Over the past several years, media has reported on tragic events that occur in our communities and our schools. From natural disasters to school shootings, school counselors and other mental health- related staff members are often fully engaged in providing support and services to students and families. Although major natural disasters and shooting incidents are in the news, many other crisis events are not. Crisis management and intervention has become a common occurrence in a school counselor’s day. When the school counselor takes care of the emotional needs of students and staff during and after a crisis, it can take an emotional toll.

Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatization, is a common concern among counselors as they are exposed to caring for others enduring trauma. It is defined as “a state of tension and preoccupation with traumatized patients by re-experiencing the traumatic events, avoidance/numbing of reminders and persistent arousal (e.g., anxiety) associated with the patient. It is a function of bearing witness to the suffering of others” (Figley, 2002, p. 1435).

Figley (2002) further explains, “In our effort to view the world from the perspective of the suffering we suffer” (p. 1,434). School counselors are called to have empathy and understand the worldview of their student, so they are certainly at risk for developing compassion fatigue. Dealing with trauma experienced by students may be viewed as an expected role of professional school counselors and this may lead to overlooking the fact that one needs support. If compassion fatigue is not identified and addressed, it can be harmful to students and counseling may suffer through poor decision-making or not use techniques effectively.

What are the Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

Mathieu (2007) outlines the following common signs of compassion fatigue:

  • Misplaced anger
  • Irritability
  • Low self-esteem
  • Insomnia
  • Workaholism
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Late to work or Frequent absences
  • Substance abuse (food, alcohol, drugs)
  • Somatic symptoms (hypertension, headaches)
  • Hypervigilance (easily startled)
  • Exhaustion

Do I Have Compassion Fatigue?

If you suspect you may have compassion fatigue, there are a few self-report measures you can access to determine if this is something you are experiencing:

Coping with Compassion Fatigue

If your results indicate you are experiencing compassion fatigue, what next? As school counselors, it is time to practice what you preach! Regardless of the results, ethical standards indicate the importance of self-awareness and self-care as a professional school counselor. Fostering your own resilience is important in order to effectively counsel others.

Five Minute Self-Care Strategies to Build Into Your Day

School counselors often have large case loads and might be tasked to move from crisis to crisis quickly, with little time to cope with the stress. A typical excuse for neglecting self-care is the lack of time. So, here is a list of 5-10 minute activities you can build into your day. Be sure to post a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door to limit possible interruptions.

  1. Deep breathing exercises
  2. Yoga or Tai Chi
  3. Take a walk
  4. Use a mindfulness app on your phone or tablet
  5. Listen to music or access a guided imagery app
  6. Eat a healthy snack or have a cup of tea
  7. Post positive affirmations or inspirational quotes, magnets in your office that promote thoughts of resilience and confidence
  8. Drink water
  9. Read a few jokes from a joke book or exchange jokes with a colleague
  10. Stretch

Creating a Self-Care Lifestyle

  1. Brief self-care moments can help you during a stressful day, but it is important to continue practicing a self-care lifestyle daily. Some of the following self-care strategies can help the school counselor develop resilience and bounce back after coping with crisis situations: Separate from work stress on your transition home. Listen to music on the drive home, take a walk to clear your mind once home or at the track at the school before leaving. This can also be done from home to work, which will allow you to leave home stress at home.
  2. Use a gratitude journal
  3. Use art as a way to relax. This can also be a group activity with colleagues, such as create your own pottery studios or canvas painting studios.
  4. Develop a regular exercise routine.
  5. Join a support group for helping professionals or a general support group that meets your needs.
  6. Participate in spiritual wellness activities, such as church groups, prayer, reading Bible, etc.
  7. Eat a well-balanced diet.
  8. Practice meditation or mindfulness on a regular basis. If sleeping is a problem, these activities can also be used prior to bedtime.
  9. Take a bubble bath.
  10. Laugh often. Watch a funny movie, do silly dances, or watch a comedy show if this is a challenge for you. Often when dealing with crisis situations, we can tend to forget to experience other emotions and laughter can be helpful.
  11. Get enough sleep. It might be time to evaluate your time outside of work and eliminate or rearrange other obligations. If you like a particular show that comes on late at night, you can record it and watch it earlier the following day. If you are engaged in too many activities during the week, re-evaluate what you wouldn’t mind giving up to get more sleep. If you struggle with insomnia, try meditation or mindfulness activities prior to bedtime.
  12. Filter the amount of trauma to which you expose yourself, including through media sources.
  13. Keep a sunshine file of stories of hope, success stories, etc.
  14. Reach out and debrief with a counseling colleague on a regular basis.
  15. Plan mini-vacations throughout the year. This doesn’t have to be expensive or far away; it could even include camping at a nearby park, doing a day trip, or going to a spa for the day.

Seeking Additional Support

From an ethical perspective, compassion fatigue is severe and self-care strategies are only part of the prevention/intervention efforts. It would be essential for school counselors to stay self-aware and seek supervision, join a support group/supervision group of colleagues, and/or enter counseling as a client. School counselors are exposed to stories of trauma and crisis on a regular basis and some of these experiences may be related to events the school counselor has also experienced personally. Additionally, the trauma may be something that happened at school or in the local community that affects many students, parents, and staff members. Although school counselors step in and provide counseling and support as they are often called to do, they also must take care of themselves in order to help others.


Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self-care. Journal of Clinical

                Psychology, 58, 1433-1441.

Mathieu, F. (2007). Running on empty: Compassion fatigue in health professionals. Rehabilitation and

                Community Care Medicine, 8-10. Retrieved from



About the Author

Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff holds an Ed.D. in Counseling Psychology, M.Ed. in School Counseling, and B.S. in Psychology. She has been with APUS since September 2010, and is an associate professor and program director of School Counseling. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), K-12 Certified School Counselor (VA) and Trauma and Loss School Specialist with 12 years of experience as an elementary and middle school counselor.

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