Care for the caregiver

You’ve got a tough job to do. Mobilizing your community to address youth suicide isn’t an easy task. And caring for young people who are suicidal – regardless of your role – can be mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausting.1

Why is self-care so important?

It takes a lot of compassion to support someone who is suffering. After listening, caring and helping, it’s sometimes difficult to shake off the emotions that have been stirred up.2 You may find it difficult to balance supporting your clients and community as well as taking care of yourself. In fact, you may end up putting your own needs on the back burner.

More often than not, chronic, built-up stress like this puts your body into a deregulated state that can lead to relayed trauma, compassion fatigue, burnout and even post-traumatic stress disorder. These conditions can compromise one’s professional functioning and can significantly diminish one’s quality of life.2 Unfortunately, these are common occupational hazards for professionals working in this sector.2 Some professionals believe they can no longer be of service to their clients, and end up leaving their jobs or the helping sector altogether.2 This can prove damaging because we need all the help we can get to prevent youth suicide.

So why do we ignore self-care? Perhaps you can’t put your finger on exactly what’s wrong. Or maybe you feel as though you, as a helper, shouldn’t need help. It’s likely that at one time or another, you’ve thought, “I don’t have time for that.''

The reality is that we help others best when we have enough energy to do so. This is exactly why it’s important that you take care of your own needs.1 By making yourself a priority, you’re helping to make sure the youth and communities you work with consistently receive the best possible care.

But how? Fortunately, there are many self-care strategies available out there. Consider the following ways you can care for yourself as a caregiver:1;2;3;4;5;6

Make yourself a priority.

  • Self-care isn't a luxury - it's a necessity. Make time every day to care for yourself.
  • Think about the compassion that you extend to others and remind yourself that you also deserve and need that same kind of compassion.

Nurture your body.

  • Exercise. Physical and mental fitness often go hand in hand.
  • Fuel your body in a healthy way. Get plenty of rest and eat well.
  • Breathe. Don't underestimate the power of deep breathing.

Reach out.

  • Remember that you're not alone. Maintain a support network so that you can talk with family, friends, colleagues or someone you trust.
  • Supportive conversations with those who understand what you're going through may help you reflect on how you feel and how your experiences have affected you.

Practice mindfulness.

  • Pay attention to your feelings, thoughts and what you're doing in the present moment. It can help settle the mind and body during periods of stress.
  • Try mediation, yoga or other simple stress reduction techniques.

Tune in.

  • How do you think you're doing? Sometimes it can help to use a self-assessment tool to determine how well you're coping.
  • There are free tools available online. Check out the Additional resources section for more info.

Draw the line.

  • Remember what your role is. Recognize where you 'stop' and where the young person you're helping 'begins.'
  • Make every effort to set clear boundaries between your work and home life.

Be kind to yourself.

  • You're doing challenging work. Recognize that there are things you cannot control.
  • Resist the urge to blame or criticize yourself for what you think you should have done in a given situation.

Do what you know.

  • What helps you cope when you're stressed? What activities do you enjoy?
  • Focus on healthy activities that bring you comfort and help you to feel calmer and safer when things are difficult.

Recognize red flags.

  • Pay attention to what your mind and body are telling you.
  • For example, are you dreading work? Unable to sleep? Feeling hopeless? Learn to recognize your warning signs.

Seek help.

  • You don't have to manage everything on your own. Connect with your doctor or a mental health professional who is not affected by the situation.
  • You may find that seeking help gives you a new perspective on the situation.


What else can help?

In addition to self-care, solid professional training and regular supervision can protect those working in the helping sector.6 The research also points to the importance of limiting one’s case load, pursuing continuing professional education and learning opportunities and keeping a balance between empathy and an appropriate professional distance to clients.6


Additional resources

The ProQOL (Professional Quality of Life) scale is the most commonly-used measure of the negative and positive results of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. The ProQOL has sub-scales for compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue.

When Compassion Hurts: Burnout, Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Trauma in Prenatal and Early Childhood Service Providers explores the signs and symptoms of burnout, vicarious trauma and secondary trauma. While this resource was designed for use with prenatal and early childhood service providers, it offers self-care tools and reflective practices that may be useful to individuals in a caregiving role.

Secondary traumatic stress: A fact sheet for child serving professionals explores secondary traumatic stress or the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first-hand trauma experiences of another. This resource outlines strategies for preventing and intervening, as well as techniques for developing resiliency.

Supporting practitioners after a client suicide or experience of trauma examines how the suicide of a client can lead to guilt, sadness, depression, demoralization, anger, shock, denial, grief, professional insecurity and changes to work practices and social lives. This brief report identifies that all mental health workers should be prepared and have supports available in the event of a client suicide.

Youth Suicide Prevention at School: A resource for Mental Health Leadership Teams covers key elements to ensuring staff wellness (see the section on attending to staff well-being and self-care).