Many servicemembers who have experienced combat, and their families, are familiar with the term "combat stress." The effects of combat, however, aren't limited to those directly connected to the experience.
Stress can affect anyone who cares for those individuals, Dr. Joseph Bobrow, a clinical psychologist, told representatives of more than 100 troop-support organizations gathered at the Pentagon for the third annual America Supports You National Summit here today.
America Supports You is a Defense Department program connecting citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.
"One of the things that we've learned from experience and research is that 'compassion fatigue,' and the potential for burning out, is not just limited to psychotherapists," he said. "Family members who are caring for wounded veterans are at risk. Veteran service workers, like yourselves, (and) volunteers (are at risk)."
Bobrow, who also is executive director of the Coming Home Project, a troop-support organization, said becoming overwhelmed by the experience of caring for servicemembers and their families is the nature of that work.
"We can anticipate this happening," he said. "It doesn't necessarily ... mean a psychiatric disorder, just like post-traumatic stress ... is not necessarily a psychiatric disorder.
"In fact, it's the body, mind and soul's way of coping with an impossible situation," he explained.
Volunteers can easily fall victim to emotions similar to those that they aim to ease in their charges, he told the support group members. "The same seed of empathy and compassion that draws us to the work that we do, if it's taken to an extreme, is the same seed that could lead us down the slippery slope to burnout," Bobrow said.
Burnout, or compassion fatigue, can be overcome, but it's better to avoid it to begin with, he said. Incorporating positive thoughts and actions into daily life builds resiliency against burnout.
He offered the group several suggestions on how to stave off compassion fatigue, most notably the need to develop the ability to recognize when things start to get overwhelming. When that happens, it's good for individuals to know what refreshes them, he said.
Keeping their attitudes about the work they're doing fresh and upbeat isn't just healthy for volunteers. It can be one of the best things for the people they're working with, Bobrow told the group.
"Our own capacity for peace and joy and well-being ... is really, fundamentally, what we end up giving the next person," he said. "That's what people pick up from us, so if our batteries have run out, then we're no longer those agents of compassion."
Bobrow shared his experiences and advice with two groups during the summit. Army Lt. Gen. Carter F. Ham, operations director for the Joint Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also addressed the group, as did Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications and public liaison, the architect of the America Supports You program.
Breakout sessions from the summit were recorded and will be available on the America Supports You Web site.
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