May 9, 2024

What is compassion fatigue? Strategies for sustainable peacebuilding

What is “Compassion Fatigue”? Strategies for sustainable peacebuilding

Social media, a 24-hour news cycle, and unprecedented access to real-time updates has made it remarkably easy to stay engaged with current events regarding the Israel-Gaza war. Since October 7th, millions of people who were only semi-aware or partially-engaged with the realities on the ground have turned their attention to what has been some of the most grotesque and devastating violence in the history of the conflict.  While it is undeniably important to stay engaged, the constant flow of information covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can significantly affect our mental health. This is especially true in an environment plagued by misinformation and sensationalism.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center in the U.S., Jewish and Muslim Americans are significantly more likely than other Americans to be following news about Israel and Palestine, and they are 20% more likely to report feelings of sadness, anger, exhaustion, and fear. Women and young adults under 30 are also more likely to report such feelings.

An overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (83%) say that hearing or reading news about the Israel-Hamas war makes them feel sad. While half of those surveyed (51%) reported feeling exhausted when reading about the war.

This speaks to a larger experience which specialists refer to as  compassion fatigue, originally identified among caretakers such as therapists, firefighters, and emergency room healthcare professionals. Compassion fatigue is a form of secondary trauma, where individuals are traumatized by events they are not directly experiencing, but are witnessing unfold in communities they feel connected to or have empathy for.

This phenomenon has also been discussed in the region by ALLMEP Member Project Rozana, which works on healthcare provision through a program called Women4Women. The program reported a large surge in women and children patients since October, spiking from 500 each month to 2,000. Although Women4Women doesn’t work with patients in the Gaza Strip, the mental health impact of the war has reverberated through the West Bank. This includes both first and secondhand trauma experiences as a result of the war, as many Palestinians in the West Bank are originally from or have families and friends in Gaza. 

One clinical psychologist, Dr. Rebecca Sachs explains that compassion fatigue can lead to exhaustion, irritability, and difficulty continuing to engage with their empathy.

“I wouldn’t say it needs to be black and white,” she told CNN in October. “It’s figuring out what is the level of engagement that can still lay a foundation for you to do valued actions to do something meaningful. But also, what is the level of engagement at this moment in time that just may be too much?”

In the same article, Dr. Charles Figley, an expert in Disaster Mental Health at Tulane University in New Orleans, emphasizes the importance of addressing compassion fatigue. To be the best we can be for ourselves and the issues we support, it is crucial to check in and prevent burn-outs. 

Strategies to handle this phenomenon include setting boundaries and limiting exposure to news, as well as diversifying news sources from reputable outlets to get a more balanced view of the situation and avoid sensationalism. It is also important to disconnect from the constant news cycle, process feelings of guilt, practice self-care, and normalize seeking professional help if needed. It is important that we consider the mental health toll of constant exposure to violent conflict, images of distress, triggering news stories, especially regarding prolonged engagement as an ally, activist, peacebuilding professional, or just someone who cares about the harsh and devastating realities Palestinians and Israelis living in the region face every day.



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