Caregivers: Who's There for Them When They Need Someone?
I taught in classrooms and administrated entire schools for more than 3-decades, and I can say that no one was there for me when I experienced my first student who used a gun on campus. No one was there for me when I experienced my first parent threaten to kill me. No one was there when I experienced my first student suicide. And those are a mere twist of one knife of the multitude of stabbing experiences I endured over my 30-plus years in education. No one was there to talk to when I needed it most.
But hey, look, I made it. I had a long and successful career in education, right? I survived. Or did I? I retired from active educating last spring, at 60-years old, realizing I just could no longer stomach the toiling in the trenches of daily school warfare. I now feel sudden attacks of anxiety when I walk or even drive past a school. What happened? Or, what didn't?
Many educators across the country will tell you the same story. It just comes with the territory. What doesn't come with the territory, however, is the support so sorely needed to effectively process such traumatic experiences. The wear and tear is oh, so evident, but the institution is pretty much geared to turning a blind eye to the problem, choosing to instead to look for fresh new hearts to throw out onto the embattled frontlines.
The price: Nearly half of those who go into teaching are gone within five years. And more than half of all principals quit soon after five years. And then there are those like me, the long-limping wounded, who managed in all our brokenness to hang in there to the bitter end...adding insult to injury every step of the way.
Those who work in the other helping professions tell the same story. Annual turnover across all facets of the human services industry is pushing 30 percent...at the least.
"When you’re focused on people getting better day in and day out, but that is not happening, it can be grinding,” said Jen Simmons, ICU Nurse, Johns Hopkins Hospital. "In a profession where you give and give, at a certain point you have no more to give. Your cup is empty.”
Diane Cole, for Psychology Today's December 2017 issue, explains in her article, The High Cost of Caring, writes "Careers that demand intense levels of caring leave caregivers exhausted and often literally traumatized."
“I realized I felt like a weighed-down sponge that couldn't take any more in,” reported Margaret Satterthwaite, professor, New York University.
Soldiers, first responders, humanitarian aid workers, nurses, surgeons, journalists, lawyers, therapists, social workers, teachers, and the like, work every day on the front lines of tragedy and disaster and conflict and are exposed to levels of stress that are way beyond what the human mind and body are built to handle.
"Everyone hits the wall at some point," says Robin Stern, Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. It's called emotional burnout, having to always "put on a brave face, appearing to be calm, and staying perpetually even-keeled." Having to do so every day without proper support more often than not leaves caregivers "stressed and depleted." The resulting long-term symptoms include deep sadness, detachment and helplessness.
"It is important to get the help needed in time so caregivers can keep working, stick to their calling, and keep giving care where needed," adds Cole.
“I would love to think that we can prevent people from hitting the wall by providing mechanisms where these issues are addressed," Cynda Rushton, professor of Clinical Ethics at Johns Hopkins University, says, “We don’t need to wait until the house is on fire before we start hosing it down.”
I agree, and I would say the same for those like me, who dare to set foot in the field of education, no matter for how long. Perhaps the real losers are those like me who found a way to stay in the profession for years, no matter the damage being done to me emotionally and physically. Those who got out early maybe saw the handwriting on the wall, and with not much to cling to in the way of resources of support, they saved their sanity for another more-supported vocational adventure.
What's a Caregiver to Do?
So, what's a caregiver to do? Who's going to care for the caregivers? How?
“There is a set of resiliency skills that you need in the helping professions,” says Anthony Back, Co-Director of the University of Washington’s Center for Excellence Palliative Care. Resilience training can enable employees to adapt well to stressors, as well as recover quickly after stressor exposure. The goal is to achieve and maintain and re-establish a balance of emotional, physical, social, familial, and spiritual aspects of life and living.
Caregivers "need to create a regular practice of self-care and nurturing," recommends Stern, which must include "escape" activities like regular exercise, quiet time, family time, nature walks, reading, hobbies, prayer, meditation, church, yoga, journaling, and intentional deep breathing, just to highlight a few possibilities.
It would also be immensely helpful if employers offered free and confidential individual/group counseling, not to mention making sure up front that their charges understand clearly the mission of their work, and then support and encourage them all along the way. It is important that caregivers know that their work matters, especially when the fruits of their labors are not always forthcoming in a timely manner.
An interesting non-human alternative to providing care for struggling caregivers is the "chatbot." Psychology Today reports that some organizations now use artificial-intelligence-based chatbots to help individuals deal with their issues when face-to-face therapy is not available. And what they are finding is that workers are more open to texting about painful issues with a robot instead of talking to a therapist. They essentially get to escape the one thing they fear the most that disable human-guided treatment... judgment.
Diane Cole, "The High Cost of Caring," Psychology Today, December 2017.