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.

Meet the Expert
Kris Boksman

Ph.D., C.Psych

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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.

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

Healthcare

Psychology & Counseling

Public Health & Administration

Social Work

Teaching & Education

Law

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.

9

Advocate for yourself.

If you feel overwhelmed with all the tasks you are expected to complete in a day, speak with your supervisor. Explain the situation and see what they can do to lighten your load.

10

Take advantage of continuing education.

Staying up to date on best practices and changes in your industry can give you the tools needed to respond to work challenges without depleting your compassion stores.

Accessing Therapy and Mental Health Resources as a Public Service Professional

Public service professionals often work on the front lines of making sure others are adequately supported and provided for. Because of this, it’s immensely important they receive support themselves so they can continue to help others.

Why It Can Be Difficult to Seek Help

  • Lack of time.
    When you feel like you don’t even have time to fulfill all the responsibilities of your job, finding time to access therapy and other mental healthcare services can seem impossible.
  • Perceived stigma.
    If your job is to help others, getting help for yourself may seem like it undermines your qualifications for the work at hand. If you cannot keep yourself healthy, how can you keep others healthy?
  • Continuous work travel.
    Some public servants find themselves traveling nonstop for work, making it seem like they can’t afford to take time away from their home time to indulge in self-care.
  • Tight finances.
    It’s no secret that many public servants do their jobs because they’re passionate about helping others rather than earning a massive paycheck. It can feel tough making decisions on how to use your small amount of discretionary spending.
  • Feeling exhausted.
    After working a double shift or teaching six classes a day, taking the extra effort to go to the gym or schedule a gym appointment can simply feel too overwhelming.
  • Lack of community.
    Some public servants work in less-than-supporting environments, making it feel difficult to lean on co-workers during rough times.

Solutions for Better Mental Health & Wellness

  • Tele-therapy/phone therapy.
    If getting to a physical office of a therapist or counselor seems too daunting, try scheduling an appointment through videoconferencing or over the phone. The therapist can still provide the same services but you can take part no matter where you’re located.
  • Support groups.
    It can feel self-indulgent or even wrong to seek help when you feel alone in your emotions. Build a support network through your professional association or local public service professionals that can help you remember that it’s okay to ask for help. In fact, asking for help can make it possible for you to serve others more effectively.
  • Advocacy from unions.
    If you feel like your employer isn’t prioritizing mental health services despite requests, reach out to your union or professional associate and ask them to advocate on the behalf of you and your colleagues. They can often work with employers and provide pressure to encourage mental health initiatives.
  • Reduced therapy costs for public servants.
    When money is stretched then, self-care routines often fall by the wayside. Speak with your supervisor about the possibility of reduced costs or subsidies that can help cover visits to therapists and counselors.
  • Relaxed requirements around sick days.
    Most employees set strict rules on how sick days can be used. Rather than requiring an employer to have a cold or another traditional ailment, these should also be made available to employees who need to take a mental health day.
  • Alternative forms of therapy.
    If you can’t get to a traditional therapist, if your finances don’t allow for it at the moment, or if talk therapy isn’t the best option, consider alternate forms of therapy. Creatively-minded individuals may find art therapy to be effective. Other options include meditation, aromatherapy, wilderness therapy, or music therapy.

Mental Health Q&A with a Clinical Psychologist

DrKris-Boksman

Kris Boksman
Ph.D., C.Psych

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.

Why is mental health such an important consideration, specifically for public service professionals?

Different people have different levels of tolerance for uncertainty and concerns about health, and different people are in different situations related to loved ones, demands on their time, childcare responsibilities, and financial issues. Public service professionals are expected to handle these issues, as well as show up for work, or create workspaces in their homes, and be mentally present to continue to serve the public, even with all of the other concerns they are facing. Public service professionals are not always well-understood by those they serve, and the people they serve are stressed out, probably a little less finessed in their approach to interacting with others, and may have a hard time remembering that public service professionals are people, too. It is hard to refuel and keep healthy in a profession where you are helping others for your job, and likely at home.

With so much pressure on them, how can public servants find ways of ensuring they stay mentally strong?

What are a few quick exercises they can do to regroup and find balance?

Public Service Volunteers: Maintaining Wellness While Giving Back

Aside from the millions of paid public service positions in America, countless individuals perform public service through volunteering. Sacrificing your personal time and working on challenging projects to give back can take its toll on your mental health. Here are some quick tips for those taking part in projects such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and other service positions.

1

Keep your supervisor in the loop.

As this article demonstrates, those who oversee volunteers understand the inevitable stress that comes from being in a new position with limited resources. Try to communicate openly with them and gather suggestions on how to proceed.

2

Check out the AmeriCorps Member Assistance Program.

AmeriCorps members can take advantage of quality mental health care through the MAP program.

3

Access governmental resources.

The Corporation for National and Community Service offers several services, tools, and webinars to help cope with stress and depression.

Additional Mental Health & Wellness Resources