‘Compassion fatigue,’ burnout hit those helping heroin addicts

WARREN, Ohio (WYTV) – Besides drug users and their families, the heroin epidemic is impacting those who help fight and treat addiction. Seeing the effects of heroin every day can cause people like EMTs and counselors to burn out.

It’s what Dr. Charles Figley, with Tulane University, calls “compassion fatigue.”He said when others help those who are in distress, they can experience an extreme state of tension and the preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

He said when others help those who are in distress, they can experience an extreme state of tension and the preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

Fighting heroin addiction can seem like an uphill battle.

Tom Young is an EMT in Warren. He said he goes on two or three overdose calls a day — sometimes it’s five or six.

“Sometimes you get caught up in the emotions of it. You do become frustrated. You get caught up in the emotions of it.”

Young said it can be difficult to go on those calls, especially when he’s seen the same patient a handful of other times before. But he said he knows it’s not their fault.

“You’re frustrated with the whole system. That we don’t have a better plan to help them, that there’s nothing really that we can do pre-hospital to help them.”

The waiting list at First Step Recovery in Warren is well over 100 people.

Counselor Amy Glinn tries to help people break their addictions during their short stay in detox. She said it’s difficult given the power of drugs like heroin.

“Here’s the tools, here’s what you can do to feel better, and they’re resisting, resisting, and it’s their disease,” Glinn said.

For her, it’s most painful when someone who showed so much promise in recovery slips back into the grip of addiction.

Many of First Step Recovery’s clients aren’t first-timers. Glinn knows several who died before they got another chance.

“It’s difficult when you know that person and you know how hard they’ve tried, and their disease just caught up with them,” she said.

Both Glinn and Young come back, day after day, to help people fight this battle.

They said it’s the success stories that keep them moving forward. Remembering those moments and talking out their negative feelings is key to avoiding burnout.

“We talk to each other about the call, we digress our information, we joke about things,” Young said.

At First Step Recovery, staff relies on each other as well.

“You can’t try to do it on your own. The addicts can’t try to do it on their own and neither can the staff. We have to be a team,” Glinn said.

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