Preventing Burnout in Student Activists by Modeling Self Compassion


One of the largest driving factors in prevention efforts over the past several years has been an increase in student activism. According to data gleaned from the Campus Prevention Network Diagnostic Inventories, 85% of schools are using peer educators to support prevention efforts. This blog is the last of a three-part series focusing on maximizing student engagementchanneling student activism, and empowering peer educators.

It is likely that, if you have spent any amount of time working in the human services field, you have heard of the terms compassion fatigue and burnoutDefined as “..displays of chronic stress resulting from the caregiving work we choose to do”, the feelings of compassion fatigue are unmistakable and can often hit like a ton of bricks. Feelings of exhaustion, frustration, sadness, and even apathy are among it’s hallmark symptoms, and by the time we realize that it is happening we are often deep into it’s impact. Although this a very real and very challenging aspect of our work, as professionals we often have the ability to understand what we are experiencing and take necessary steps to manage it.

For college students working in an activist role, however, this is not always as easy.

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College students who work to challenge problematic or unjust issues at their institutions typically do so for a variety of reasons. For some, the issues that they are combatting are deeply personal. For others, there exists within them a drive for betterment of the world. Statistically speaking, individuals who are empaths are more likely to get into social justice or activism work. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, empaths are also more likely to experience compassion fatigue. According to the research of J. Eric Gentry and Anna Baranowski, certain factors increase an individual’s susceptibility to compassion fatigue. Individuals who: are highly dedicated, have a high demand for personal competence, experience low self-compassion, have their own personal trauma or loss, and those with a lack of resources are more likely to experience compassion fatigue. With this in mind, there are some specific steps that you can take to support students in achieving balance and nurturing their wellbeing.

Make them aware that it’s a thing. One of my favorite phrases is “you can’t do better until you know better.” Sometimes a student who is experiencing compassion fatigue may not even realize that it is happening. They may be feeling down, frustrated, or apathetic, and incorrectly blame it on themselves, attributing it to a lack of caring which further fuels the fires of the affliction.  By providing a primer on compassion fatigue and educating students on it’s prevalence,  signs, symptoms, and solutions, you will equip them with the resources to know what to do when it happens.

Make it a habit of checking in. When I worked with students on a campus, it became somewhat of a joke that I would frequently ask “so how are you really doing?” I would then remind them of the importance of self-care. While it was often said in a lighthearted tone, students reported that it was a helpful check-in, and it presented a reminder that self-care was just as important as the advocacy work that we were doing.

Make self-care a part of the work.  If you are in the midst of a particularly busy or stressful time (think Sexual Assault Awareness Month) or if you notice that a student seems to be exhibiting some of the signs of compassion fatigue, take it upon yourself to intervene. Give the student an assignment to do something for themselves. This might come in the form of canceling a weekly meeting in favor of self-care, or pushing back a deadline on a project to allow the student some extra “me-time.” Be explicit in your expectations, and let them know that they aren’t alone. For example, you could say something along the lines of “I noticed you’ve  been working really hard lately, and I think a break might be nice. I’m going to cancel our weekly meeting, and I hope that you use the extra time to do something nice for yourself. You really deserve it.” By framing your request in the form of an assignment, you may encourage the student to take the time to do something they might not do otherwise. Likewise, consider providing a space for students to discuss the challenges that come with the work that they are doing. Host a once-monthly group, or have specific office hours to allow students the chance to discuss some of the challenges that they are facing.

Some self-care strategies that you could suggest to students include spending time outside, listening to an online guided meditation, journaling, reading for pleasure, taking a hot shower, or even taking a much needed nap.

Make referrals. Have at the ready a list of counselors that you can refer students to. Consider making at least one personal connection both at your institution and outside of it, and get to know a couple of counselors on a first name basis. If you feel that a student would benefit from some additional support, or if a student comes to you looking for resources, you’ll be ready to guide them in the right direction with a warm handoff.

Be a role model. Specifically helpful in this context is the concept of “practicing what we preach.” Take the time to check in with yourself around whether or not you are employing your own self-care strategies. As a professional, you are likely the role model that student activists and workers look up to. Aside from being a benefit for your own well being, having a regular practice of self-care can also be a powerful demonstration for the students that you work with. Additionally, consider being transparent with students when you are feeling the stressors of the job. By normalizing the fact that social justice work can be both rewarding and exhausting, you are painting a realistic and human picture of the realities that we face in this field, and helping students to understand that they are not alone should they experience both.

While it is impossible to completely avoid burnout or compassion fatigue, awareness and action can go a long way. By being aware of the risks and signs, educating students accordingly, and making self-care a regular practice, we can help to better support the amazing—and often over-extended—students that we work with.

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