Carrying Stories: Beyond Self Care

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Girl with Balloon, street art by Banksy. This one found at intersection of K-Road and Queen Street in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015.

What to do with difficult stories? Stories of refugees, victims of mass shootings, of hate crimes, of rape, of torture victims, of people dying alone and unnoticed ?  It all gets overwhelming and depressing to hear or read these sorts of difficult stories, to carry them in our hearts, to bear witness to so much suffering in the world.

Of course, for many fortunate (perhaps unfortunate?) people, there is the option of tuning out these stories, turning off the news, unplugging from any non-vacuous form of social media. Taking a break from difficult stories.

But what about all the other people who cannot or choose not to disconnect? What about people whose work involves listening to these stories on a daily basis? Frontline health care providers who work with people experiencing trauma (physical, emotional, sexual). First responders. Counselors, mental health therapists, lawyers. Human rights activists. Researchers working on social justice issues. What can they do to, if not prevent, at least deal effectively with, vicarious or secondary trauma? And for those of us who teach/train/mentor students in these roles, how do we prepare students to be able to carry difficult stories while maintaining well-being?

In a previous blog post, “Burnout and Crazy Cat Ladies,” I explored the issue of ‘too much empathy’ and of pathological altruism, linking to some of the (then/2011) current research. After writing that post and some related essays, I began incorporating a new set of in-class reflective writing prompts for soon-to-be nurses in my community/public health course. I used these in a class session I titled “Public Health Ethics, Boundaries, and Burnout.”

The first writing prompt: ‘What draws you to work in health care? What motivates or compels you to do this work?’ And then later in the class session– after discussing professional boundaries (how fuzzy they can be), individual and systems-level risk factors for burnout, and asking them to reflect on how they know when they are getting too close to a patient, a community, or an issue–I gave them the follow-up writing prompt: ‘Referring back to what you wrote about what draws you to work in health care, what do you think are the biggest potential sources of burnout for you? And what might you be able to do about them?’

Feedback from students about this in-class reflective writing exercise and the accompanying class content on boundaries and burnout, was invariably positive. Many of them said it was the first time in their almost two years of nursing education that anyone had addressed these issues. I understand that patient care, electrolyte balances, wound care and all the rest of basic nursing education takes priority, but it makes me sad that we don’t include this, to me what is fundamental and essential, content.

“…people who really don’t care are rarely vulnerable to burnout. Psychopaths don’t burn out. There are no burned-out tyrants or dictators. Only people who do care can get to this level of numbness,” Rachel Naomi Remen, MD reminds us in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996). Something to remember when we are feeling overwhelmed by difficult stories.

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Here are some excellent resources:

 

One thought on “Carrying Stories: Beyond Self Care

  1. Thank you for addressing this here, and in your teaching, Josephine. Having worked as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner at Harborview for 11 years, this resonates deeply. As a relatively new clinical faculty in Community Health at SU, I have grappled with how to bring some of these issues into my teaching. I appreciate your use of this reflective practice with your students.

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