WDAY: The News Leader

Published May 22, 2013, 10:05 PM

Compassion fatigue can hurt people helping those in need

Fargo, ND (WDAY TV) - Volunteers from all over the country are descending on Oklahoma right now, as people there pick up the pieces from tornadoes and storms earlier this week.

By: Becky Parker, WDAY Staff Reports, WDAY

Fargo, ND (WDAY TV) - Volunteers are descending on Oklahoma to help people pick up the pieces.

More than 200 Red Cross disaster workers have already opened shelters, kitchens, and emergency aid. But many of those volunteers will experience what is known as "compassion fatigue."

The volunteers helping victims in these disaster areas sometimes need a little help themselves. They are dealing with people who have been through some traumatic experiences.

The stress, frustration, and sadness victims are feeling can start to overwhelm those volunteers.

Volunteers rolling into tornado-ravaged towns in Oklahoma this week are up for an emotionally taxing experience.

West Fargo resident Jane Rudlang can relate.

Jane Rudlang, Red Cross Volunteer: "It's not really a depression. It's more like this overwhelming feeling of helplessness that you get."

Last fall, Rudlang spent two weeks in New York, helping victims of Hurricane Sandy. It was her first deployment with the Red Cross, but working with devastated victims who lost their homes took a toll.

Rudlang: "You're just exposed to negativity day in and day out and eventually you just start to feel worse and worse."

Dealing with trauma victims can cause mental and emotional exhaustion. It's known as "compassion fatigue," and over the years, the Red Cross has put more emphasis on providing mental health support.

They advise workers to take breaks, get some rest, and burn off stress with exercise.

Kit O’Neill, Disaster Mental Health: "If they are doing something very intense, say they are working with a family who lost someone in a tornado, then those assignments don't last as long and we rotate workers more quickly."

They also tell volunteers to "buddy up," and have someone they trust to vent with.

Rudlang: "Volunteers would say, 'What happened to you today? This is what happened to me.' And that really helped to work through it."

The local Red Cross unit has not yet deployed teams to Oklahoma, but staff and volunteers remain on standby.