Mental Health & Wellness Guide for Public Service Professionals
How those in helping careers can practice self-care, get the help they need, and come to terms with the extreme mental, emotional, and physical demands of their jobs.
Kathleen Curtis is an American writer currently living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has developed content around education for more than a decade for both domestic and international clients.
Dr. Kris Boksman, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist in Kingston, Ontario. She has been providing psychological treatment and consultation for over ten years, with specific expertise in the treatment of depression, trauma, and narcissistic abuse. She is a Certified Brainspotting Therapist. Dr. Boksman owns and directs a mental health clinic called Limestone Clinic.
Being able to make a positive impact is what makes working in a public service field so special. From the school social worker keeping a group of at-risk teens on track to graduate, to the rookie cop protecting the neighborhood she grew up in, to the critical care nurse pulling a double shift during a healthcare crisis, public service professionals represent the best in all of us. Yet this same capacity and desire to do good often comes at the cost of mental health and wellness. Being overworked, dealing with life-and-death situations, and concerns over funding are just a few of the triggers that can lead to serious issues like compassion fatigue, burnout, and traumatic stress. And when symptoms do arise, it can be hard to ask for help when you’re the one who usually provides it.
This guide explores mental health issues that public service professionals are most at risk for, the common stressors that cause them, and solutions and resources to get well. While this guide is not meant to (and should not) replace professional medical advice, it can help serve as a starting point for understanding and dealing with the mental health challenges of being in a helping career.
Warning Signs Your Mental Health May Be in Jeopardy
No matter which field of public service you work in, it’s critical to recognize the early warning signs that you may have or may develop a serious mental health issue because of on-the-job experiences.
- Increased reliance on alcohol or illicit substances
- Sudden lack of interest in work or changes in job performance
- Being exposed to someone who took their own life
- A recent traumatic event witnessed in the line of duty
- Drawing away from others in their unit or department
- Stressful life events that contribute to compassion fatigue at work
- Family history of mental health issues
- Increased health issues, including headaches or anxiety/depression
- Withdrawal from those you once cared about/interacted with
- Problems sleeping or showing up to work late
- Higher blood pressure
- Viscerally unsettling dreams
- Unusual outbursts of anger and an inability to vocalize the problem
Examining Common Stressors in the Public Service Field
Rather than discussing public service stressors as a whole, it’s more useful to look at causes of stress for individual careers and sectors. A firefighter may experience very different types of compassion fatigue than a teacher, while a government worker may be far more affected by a newly enacted federal or state policy. Here’s a closer look at common stressors for professionals in working in popular public service sectors and solutions for improving mental wellness.
A Closer Look at Compassion Fatigue & Related Mental Health Issues
Also known as vicarious traumatization or secondary trauma, compassion fatigue is the manifestation of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that results from dealing with traumatic situations or traumatized people. People in any of the helping professions are particularly susceptible because of their day-to-day involvement with emergency incidents, stories of despair or loss, and other emotionally-taxing situations.
Those suffering from compassion fatigue exhibit characteristics of being indifferent and emotionally withdrawn, and they lose empathy for those they care for or others who need help. It’s important to remember that compassion fatigue can occur after a single exposure to a traumatic circumstance or can build up after repeated exposures.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
- Trouble getting undisturbed sleep
- Impaired judgment and behavior
- Feelings of existential despair
- Depression and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Isolating behaviors
- Increased emotions
- Changes in worldview or beliefs
- New feelings of anger
- Emotional exhaustion
- Newfound chronic physical symptoms
Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness
- Set emotional boundaries to help you remember that you can provide help while still maintaining a separate and healthy identity.
- Develop a support network that can provide positive social interactions and time away from stressful work situations.
- Create a set of active coping measures (e.g., planning your time, ensuring you laugh) to help better manage stress.
- Use self-awareness tools such as journaling, counseling, and meditation to ensure you understand your feelings.
Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout vs. Primary Traumatic Stress
Because these terms often get used interchangeably, understanding the differences is important to improving your mental health and understanding your needs. Carefully review the definitions of each term below to find which one you identify with most.
Though commonly confused, compassion fatigue and burnout are unique. Burnout refers to issues around increased amounts of work and stress about employment but is not connected to traumatic events. Burnout can typically be remedied more easily than compassion fatigue if caught early. Examples of burnout in the public service sector include teachers or social workers who experience burnout due to impossible workloads that never seem to end or nurses who experience burnout from working double shifts.
As noted previously, compassion fatigue varies from burnout in that it results in more physical and mental health symptoms. Someone with burnout may feel tired or angry, while those with compassion fatigue are more likely to feel a sense of sadness or grief, deal with addiction issues, and employ avoidance techniques. Firefighters may experience compassion fatigue when dealing with endless wildfires. Social workers may experience compassion fatigue when supporting clients with traumatic home lives.
Primary Traumatic Stress
Compassion fatigue is commonly known as secondary traumatic stress as it comes from the reaction to others’ traumas. Primary traumatic stress refers to traumas experienced directly by an individual. Police officers who witnessed or participated in an armed encounter frequently experience primary traumatic stress, as do healthcare workers who lose patients or firefighters who cannot save individuals in time.
10 Self-Care & Wellness Tips for Public Service Professionals
When working in stressful public service roles, taking time for self-care becomes more important than ever. Stepping back from the workplace to reenergize can improve your mental health and help you rejuvenate for both yourself and those you serve.
Step away from social media.
Studies have shown that increased screen time can lead to higher levels of depression. If you feel stressed out from work, try to detox from social media and instead focus on yourself.
Rely on your support system.
Reach out to family members and friends regularly to ensure you keep supportive lines of communication active and open. Even a 15-minute chat can help brighten your day.
Limit your exposure to news.
Staying up-to-date on what’s happening in the world is important, but too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Set boundaries around when and how much time you spend reading/listening to the news.
Be nice to your body.
When possible, try to eat healthy foods that support brain function and limit alcohol consumption. Try to get outside for a walk at least a couple of times per week.
Engage in meditation.
Use one of the many apps now available (such as Calm) to take time to center your breathing and calm your mind.
Surround yourself with greenery.
If getting outside regularly doesn’t seem feasible, consider getting a few low-maintenance plants for your home and workspaces. Plants have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.
Do walking meetings.
Rather than staying glued to your desk, suggest a walking meeting near your office. You can move the ball forward with the required tasks while still getting some fresh air.
Find a therapist.
Speaking to a professional about the stresses you face in your work and private life can help relieve anxiety while also providing you with actionable coping mechanisms.