Compassion Fatigue

Compassion is defined as “the ability to understand the emotional state of another person or oneself…and a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering” (Engel, 2008). Given that treatment courts are an application of therapeutic jurisprudence (see Winick & Wexler, 2015) and seek to facilitate the rehabilitation process, all team members (e.g., prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, law enforcement representatives, case managers, probation/parole agents, etc.) should display compassion when interacting with participants.
 
We know that the work of treatment court practitioners can be both rewarding and challenging. On one had treatment courts facilitate change within individuals who may have repeatedly cycled through the criminal justice system. However, asking team members to embody principles of therapeutic jurisprudence generally and compassion more specifically may run contrary to previous schooling and/or training. For example, Norton, Johnson, & Woods (2016) highlight the challenges lawyers may experience given their law school training (e.g., Socratic method) and the structure of the legal profession (e.g., adversarial system). This reality underscores the need to be mindful of a phenomenon titled “compassion fatigue” (or secondary trauma). Compassion fatigue has been defined as “’the cost of caring’ for those in professions that regularly see and care for others in pain and trauma” (Grant, Lavery, & Decarlo, 2019:1).
 
Dr. Françoise Mathieu’s TEDx Talk “The Edge of Compassion” addresses strategies for sustaining both compassion and empathy for others.
 
In order to maintain fidelity to the treatment court model, it is imperative that all team members are operating in accordance with the principles of therapeutic jurisprudence and are mindful of how compassion fatigue (or secondary trauma) manifests itself and what it “looks” like. This level of awareness among treatment court practitioners will allow for course correction should they experience the “psychological and physical effects of exposure to the pain, distress, or injustice suffered by clients” (Norton, Johnson, & Woods, 2016:988).

According to Lee & Miller (2013) “Self-care has been described as a process, an ability, but most often as engagement in particular behaviors that are suggested to promote specific outcomes such as a ‘sense of subjective well-being’, a healthy lifestyle, stress relief, and resiliency for the prevention of empathy fatigue” (97). They go on to describe two distinct, but inherently connected dimensions of self-care; personal and professional. Personal self-care focuses on holistic health and well-being of oneself, where as professional self-care “is understood as the process of purposeful engagement in practices that promote effective and appropriate use of the self in the professional role within the context of sustaining holistic health and well-being” (98). Lee & Miller argue that both dimensions of self-care must be cultivated in order to develop and maintain a healthy and resilient workforce.

So, what is needed in order to fully develop personal and professional self-care? What specific areas of one’s personal and professional life should be considered and supported? Lee & Miller (2013) identified several areas within both dimensions which are outlined in Table 1 below. A specific discussion of each area of attention and support is provided in the journal article. Go check it out!

Additional readings on the topic of compassion fatigue are provided below and we hope you will join us on NDCRC’s Beyond the Field discussion board for continued dialogue about the topic.

 

References: 

Engel, B. (2008, April 29). “What is Compassion and How Can It Improve My Life? Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/200804/what-is-compassion-and-how-can-it-improve-my-life
 
Grant, H.B., Lavery, C.F., & Decarlo, J. (2019). “An Exploratory Study of Police Officers: Low Compassion Satisfaction and Compassion Fatigue: Frontiers in Psychology, 9:1-5. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02793
 
Norton, L. Johnson, J. & Woods, G. (2016). “Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: What Lawyers Need to Know.” UMKC Law Review, 84(4): 987-1002.
 
Winick, Bruce J. and Wexler, David B. (2015) “Drug Treatment Court: Therapeutic Jurisprudence Applied,” Touro Law Review, 18(3) https://digitalcommons.tourolaw.edu/lawreview/vol18/iss3/6
 

Related Upcoming Training:

Justice Clearinghouse
Date: Tuesday, April 6 @ 1-2:15pm (EST)
 

Written by Dr. Kristen DeVall

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