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Compassion fatigue – how secondary trauma can impact volunteers on working in the refugee community

I very recently returned from three weeks in Samos. It wasn’t, however, three weeks of sun, beaches, blue sea and tavernas. In fact, the purpose of my trip was to volunteer on behalf of my Community Interest Company, CHAMPS for Change, facilitated by the amazing Indigo Volunteers team to provide psycho-social support to volunteers across Europe in refugee camps.

To give a little context to this blog, Indigo Volunteers connect independent volunteers with grassroots partner charities working along the European refugee route. They help the organisations on the ground to deliver the amazing work that they do for refugees and asylum seekers. I personally came across Indigo Volunteers in Spring this year, when we were already in lockdown, as they were looking for volunteers to provide psycho-social support for the volunteers on the ground.

This was particularly of interest to me as, four years ago, I volunteered in Rocinha in Brazil – the largest favela in the Southern Hemisphere. If you haven’t heard the term favela before, another word to summarise it would be ‘slum’. Whilst working at the grassroots level in Rocinha, I knew how hard volunteers on the ground worked, especially within small and often under funded NGO’s. I wanted to give something back and this felt like the perfect opportunity.

I was supported by Indigo in that they promoted the sessions to the co-ordinators of the NGOs, but it was solely me on the ground in Samos. Across ten working days (bearing in mind the 11 days of strict quarantine measures on arrival into Samos) I delivered twenty workshops and nine one-to-one pit-stop coaching sessions for volunteers who worked with the refugee community.

Why volunteer for volunteers?

You may be wondering why I was volunteering for other volunteers – and not working directly with refugees themselves. The reason for this is because, while volunteers work relentlessly in supporting refugee communities directly, their experiences can be harrowing and frustrating – especially when trying to operate amidst lockdown regulations.

In Samos, there are over 4,000 refugees in the camp and, prior to my visit, I was advised that Covid cases were on the rise, hence the self-isolation measures that I had to adhere to on arrival. Due to the restrictions, certain community hubs and facilities were shut down, which became a source of frustration for both refugees and volunteers. For example, the laundry facilities for an entire camp of 4,000 people was closed. It only reopened before I left for individuals who had been medically referred with skin conditions such as lice and scabies.

Additionally, volunteers are very passionate about what they do, so imagine if you’re out there trying to make a difference but, due to restrictions, feeling unable to help? Another frustration that I am very aware of from my own experience is you simply cannot help everyone. You never feel as though you have done enough – and this has only been amplified during the pandemic.

For volunteers to continue helping others effectively, they need to proactively manage their own positive wellbeing – and that’s where the need for psycho-social support and coaching came in.

Compassion Fatigue – what is it?

If we consider what displaced individuals must be going through and the horrors that many of them are fleeing from before finding themselves stuck in often dire conditions, we can begin to understand that the volunteers who are supporting day in day out are exposed to secondary trauma themselves.

In essence – that’s what compassion fatigue is, an element of secondary trauma combined with burnout. While you’re not dealing with the trauma directly, you see it day in day out but that doesn’t mean you harden to it. In fact, when we think about PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder) you can actually be diagnosed because of secondary trauma, so the impact on our mental wellbeing is significant.

Therefore there is a very real justification to provide services to volunteers as well as refugees.

While in Samos, I remember one evening walking through town and we spotted somebody sitting on the side of the road crying and really upset. One of the volunteers I was with stopped and had a long conversation about why they were so upset. Being there for people and hearing their stories can be traumatic. In fact, for me, in some ways I was hearing these stories third hand, and by the end of the three weeks, I certainly felt the impact.

How does coaching help?

Whether we are providing coaching for volunteers supporting the refugee community, leaders in corporate organisations trying to support staff through tricky times, or simply individuals struggling to manage their wellbeing through the pandemic, coaching enables us to have space held for us and to allow us to pause and reflect. We can consider how we are feeling and what our purpose is. It allows us to proactively manage our own Mental Wealth which ultimately empowers us to support others more effectively.

To find out more about our coaching services click here.

To learn more about individual coaching for MENTAL WEALTH, visit mymentalwealth.com

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