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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.

Kris Boksman
Meet the Expert

Kris Boksman

Updated

08/14/2020

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.

Criminal Justice & Homeland Security

Individuals in this field hold titles such as border patrol agent, police officer, and correctional officer. They work for police departments; local, state, and federal government agencies; emergency response companies; and nonprofit organizations.

Common Stressors

  • Being placed in life-and-death situations such as shootings and domestic/international terrorist attacks
  • Working with individuals routinely facing issues of assault and domestic violence
  • Witnessing children who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused
  • Receiving intelligence regarding potential threats and planned attacks
  • Never knowing when you’ll be called to a serious crime or attack in progress
  • Concern over funding for your job/department

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Realize that it’s okay to not be okay, and know that others face the same hardships as you. Getting help is the best thing you can do for yourself and those you seek to protect.
  • After getting home from a long and stressful shift, try to reach for foods and beverages that support mental health rather than cause you to feel more anxious or keep you awake.
  • Find a counselor that specializes in working with those who place themselves in the line of danger each day.
  • Take advantage of resources provided under the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017.

Fire Safety

Working in fire safety means you probably have a title such as firefighter, fire investigator, fire prevention specialist, or forest fire mitigation specialist. Many of these professionals work at firehouses, but they may also be employed by local/state governments or environmental groups.

Common Stressors

  • Concern over fire prevention and increased fire incident rates due to a warming planet
  • Lack of proper training given to individuals when fires do break out
  • Never knowing what your next call may require
  • Witnessing loss of life and/or severe burns to those affected by fires
  • Seeing individuals and families lose their homes and all their possessions
  • Long, intense shifts
  • The rise of wildfires across the world

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Many firefighters feel they must stay “on alert” even when sleeping. It’s important to try to shut down when resting to fully recharge.
  • Reconnect by spending as much time with friends and family as possible when off work and after resting.
  • Find a therapist who you can speak with about the traumatic events experienced at work.
  • Ask your fire department to provide the resources, funding, and mental health specialists necessary to help you and your unit process traumatic events when they happen.
  • Get your fire department connected with the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and take part in their workshops.

Healthcare

Medical and healthcare jobs range from entry-level positions such as medical assistant and licensed practical nurse to advanced roles such as pharmacist, physician, and advanced practice registered nurse. These professionals work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, long-term care facilities, and local, state, and federal governments.

Common Stressors

  • Exposure to infectious diseases
  • Lack of necessary medical supplies
  • Insufficient legislation around medical and/or pharmaceutical services
  • Understaffing and heavier patient loads, resulting in less-than-ideal shifts
  • Unrealistic expectations from patients, their families, and supervisors
  • Trouble leaving a hard day at work vs. bringing it home
  • Watching patients go through painful and sometimes life-ending experiences
  • Lack of social and managerial support at work

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Ask for increased access to mental health practitioners specialized in supporting you and your colleagues
  • Discuss options for discounts or stipends for local gyms, massage therapists, yoga studios, and other wellness services.
  • If you feel overwhelmed, ask about the possibility of hiring more staff.
  • Encourage the development of a facility-wide protocol for supporting you and your coworkers as you deal with traumatic experiences, either in your personal life or with a patient.
  • Speak with your supervisor about getting training on how to handle stressful/traumatic experiences related to work.
  • Ask for an employee-only outdoor space where you can take their breaks and eat meals in sunlight when possible.

Psychology & Counseling

Professionals working in this field hold titles such as psychologist, mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, and school counselor. They may work in private practice, at a hospital or clinic, for a social services agency, or in a school setting, among others.

Common Stressors

  • An overwhelming amount of insurance and other types of paperwork for each client
  • Helping others handle traumatic, stressful, or damaging life experiences on a daily basis
  • Finding a therapist who specializes in working with others in the psychology and counseling professions
  • Too large of a caseload
  • Feeling isolated from other practitioners
  • Managing personal issues outside of professional ones
  • Keeping up with continuing education requirements around licensing when life gets busy

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Join a professional association for psychologists and counselors that offers local chapters and opportunities to communicate with others in similar areas of work.
  • Rather than working through lunch to complete paperwork and other administrative tasks, take time to eat a healthy meal.
  • Make time to get out in the sunshine and move your body in enjoyable ways.
  • Work with a counselor or psychologist who primarily serves individuals in this line of work.
  • Know that it’s okay to turn away new clients or referrals if need be.

Public Health & Administration

Common titles in this area of work include public health administrator, epidemiologist, pandemic specialist, and immunologist. They often work for public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control or at hospitals, research facilities, laboratories, health departments, and universities. Unlike medical professionals who experience acute stress from their work, public health officials tend to fall in the chronic stress category.

Common Stressors

  • A sudden influx of work and pressure due to unexpected outbreaks (e.g., the COVID-19 coronavirus)
  • Feelings of hopelessness when the world is looking to you for answers that cannot be given at this time
  • Trying to get adequate funding from local, state, and federal government

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Remind yourself that you’re doing the best job you can under the circumstances.
  • Develop a network with others in this field who do similar work and understand shared stress points.
  • Make time for fresh air, healthy food, and any type of exercise that helps you relieve stress.
  • As best as you can, try to balance your work life and your home life.
  • Develop a meditation practice.
  • Ask your supervisors to communicate regularly and clearly about the work at hand.

Social Work

Social workers specialize in many different areas, including mental health and substance abuse, child and family, social and human services, and healthcare. They work in hospitals, schools, social service centers, inpatient programs, and in private practice.

Common Stressors

  • Providing counsel to clients dealing with issues of abuse, neglect, violence, death, and suicidal ideation
  • Large caseloads due to inadequate staffing
  • Lack of funding
  • Keeping up with required paperwork and documentation for each case
  • Finding appropriate services and resources to connect clients with based on their individual needs
  • Seeking out funding for necessary services and programming
  • Existing in a stressful work environment with high turnover due to burnout

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • If particular points of trauma (e.g., sexual abuse, domestic assault, grief) affect you more than others, transfer those clients to social workers specialized in those areas and build your own niche.
  • Be vigilant about your caseload and speak to a supervisor if the number of clients you currently serve is leading to compassion fatigue.
  • Remember that just because your calling is to help others, that doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes need help yourself.
  • Create some type of ritual when leaving your office or arriving home that helps you separate from work.

Teaching & Education

Common titles in this field include teacher, instructional coordinator, principal, and admissions coordinator. These professionals work in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, school boards, and state, local, and government education departments.

Common Stressors

  • Keeping up with lesson planning
  • Preparing students for standardized tests/making sure they cover enough content
  • Handling difficult and/or demanding parents or those who are not engaged
  • Shifting education policies that change the workload
  • Keeping up with grades and marking
  • Dealing with behavior management issues
  • Being moved to a different grade or subject area
  • Unannounced observations
  • Adjusting to new curricula
  • Handling conflict or disagreements with fellow teachers or school administrators
  • Maintaining a work-life balance

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Understand what belongs in your circle of concern vs. your circle of influence.
  • Rather than getting bogged down by the end goal, focus on what you can do each day to create a safe and effective learning environment.
  • Create a list of small self-care activities (e.g., meditation, a massage, cooking) that you can select from when you need a pick-me-up.
  • Find a strong network of fellow educators or administrators who can provide inspiration, wisdom, or a listening ear.
  • Be honest with your superiors about your needs. By speaking your truth, you will be a better teacher/administrator in the long run.

Law

Common titles include public defender, district attorney, pro-bono lawyer, public interest attorney, and legal aid administrator. These individuals often work for legal aid organizations or clinics, nonprofit organizations, law firms, and governmental agencies.

Common Stressors

  • Lawyers working in family and criminal law often see the highest levels of compassion fatigue due to witnessing the trauma associated with these populations
  • Lack of resources and support, making it seem difficult to adequately defend or represent clients
  • Continual feelings of being overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted
  • Feelings of cynicism and pessimism
  • Abuse of alcohol or other self-medicating acts
  • Feeling demoralized when cases do not go your way

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Ensure you make time for activities that help you wind down after a stressful day, including exercise, time with friends and family, meditation, and entertainment.
  • Develop several active coping methods you can rely on if you feel stress or secondary trauma sneaking up.
  • If possible, get a pet. Pets can help people relax and provide emotional support during difficult times.
  • Complete the American Bar Association’s CLE on mental and physical health tips for busy lawyers.
  • Create a network of other lawyers who can go to each other with problems and ask for help/support.

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
  • Self-contempt
  • 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.

Burnout

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.

Compassion Fatigue

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.

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.

6

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.

7

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.

8

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.