Can I be honest? When I read that half the victims of the mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs Texas were children, I paused, then turned the page, disgusted and angry. Not just at the shooter, but at the people who died as well. It's awful to admit this, but I can't shake the thought that people died because they refused to listen to social scientists who kept telling them that guns cause gun violence. It's that simple.
I hate myself for blaming the victims (not the children, but the adults of voting age), though I shouldn’t be surprised at my feelings. There is a well-studied explanation for what’s troubling me. It’s called compassion fatigue and American researchers like Richard Adams, Charles Figley and Joseph Boscarino have even developed a scale to measure feelings of secondary trauma and burnout that grow as we encounter traumatic events that we feel we can’t change. Too much compassion fatigue and we are likely to become emotionally withdrawn and depressed. It’s a form of self-preservation. Maybe even resilience. An adaptive strategy to keep us from being consumed with anger or guilt.
I wasn’t like that when I heard the news about Sandy Hook. I remember my day stopped. A thousand miles away and still I could feel tears welling up inside. Surely, something would change, I told myself. Evil had gone too far and people would be forced to come to their senses. I should have realized I would be disappointed yet again.
We seem unable to name the real problem. Instead, we obscure it behind the gauzy cloth of mental illness. The science tells us otherwise. A thoughtful and thorough analysis by Max Fisher and Josh Keller in the New York Times clearly shows that the United States has the same rate of mental illness as other industrialized countries. And yet it has three, four, ten times as many mass shootings. The rate of mass murders tracks an almost perfect line with national statistics on the availability of guns. It is sadly ironic, even morbid, that the places being most affected by gun violence like Las Vegas and now Texas have also been the places in the industrialized world that have made access to firearms so easy.
If I’m to show compassion I have to tell myself that the people in that church didn’t know they were in danger. That they were manipulated into voting for politicians who hid the science. But I don’t think I can convince myself of that any longer. I’m feeling too emotionally numb and helpless. These days, I find myself thinking, “They knew there was risk, and still they did nothing.”
What We Know About Compassion Fatigue
If these same thoughts have crossed your mind, don't dismiss them as signs of moral weakness. Though the concept of compassion fatigue has been studied most with mental health care providers like social workers and psychologists, we are all exposed to the trauma of mass shootings through the media. I find it interesting that while therapists who work with people who have been badly traumatized will experience secondary trauma (they feel like they too experienced the trauma even though they didn’t), they don’t necessarily become burned out or emotionally numb if they maintain a healthy set of supports away from their job and feel their work has meaning. That was the finding from a study by Adams and his colleagues with over two hundred social workers in NYC two years after 9/11. That study was one of many that were used to prove that compassion fatigue exists.
It’s not just exposure to repeated tragedies, though, that makes us emotionally numb. It is tragedy and helplessness combined that are the real culprits when it comes to shutting down our feelings. If the research is right, we go numb when we feel helpless. When it comes to mass shootings, I feel helpless because the solution is so obvious. So well researched. So attainable and yet so impossible to put into practice. Change is not happening. The more people who experience the same frustration I experience, the more likely it is that we will all become emotionally numb and stop empathizing with the victims of these tragedies. That would be a tragedy in its own right.
Recently, we’ve come to understand better how collective compassion fatigue might occur. Studies of how Facebook friends experience emotions together has (somewhat controversially) suggested that we can experience a collective emotion even through an online presence. According to Adam Kramer, the study’s lead author, we may not even need to be face-to-face to share this feeling of powerlessness with millions of others. Since you’re here with me online, I can assume that some of you feel the same way I do.
Indeed, there’s a pattern emerging. Tragedy is followed by collective anger, then a desire to help (I’m a mental health professional after all), followed by a failure to see any real change happening. Then more tragedy strikes (it is only a matter of time before the next mass shooting occurs), more anger erupts, more helplessness follows. Repeat, over and over again until the desire to advocate for change fades and is replaced by two emotions. First, resignation, or emotional withdrawal. Second, bitterness tinged with blame, not at the person doing the shooting, but at the people who keep putting themselves in harm’s way. If they won’t listen to the scientists then why should we care what happens to them?
I don’t want to feel like this any longer.
Fortunately, there are solutions. Here are a few that can work.
1. Personalize the tragedy. Read the stories of each of the dead and connect with them as people, not nameless victims. This simple act of reading their stories can maintain compassion and protect us from apathy.
2. Be outraged. Speak your mind. Don’t give in to the desire to withdraw.
3. If you are still feeling burnt out emotionally, look for a tragedy closer to home. We are more likely to feel compassion for what touches our lives directly. Maybe you have not experienced a mass shooting, but most of us have had someone in our social network commit suicide, or die in a car accident. If we can care about them and the loss their loved ones feel, then we are more likely to find our way back to feeling compassion for strangers half a continent away. That makes sense to me. I still recall the cold shudder I felt when I saw pictures of a Starbucks in Jakarta Indonesia where a 2016 terrorist attack killed two tourists. I’d been in that same Starbucks just weeks before. For me, it wasn’t an anonymous act of violence, but something far closer to home. Though frightening, it didn’t make me feel powerless. It made me work harder on my studies of resilience that lately have begun to look at the factors that prevent violent extremism.
The solution to compassion fatigue, then, is to engage your emotions. Becoming numb is a reasonable adaptation when outrage meets futility, but emotional withdrawal can also be avoided. I can consciously choose to think about victims as people first. I can caution myself to not blame them even if it looks like they created the very conditions that led to their deaths. I can push for change closer to home. Doing all these things will ensure my compassion fatigue doesn’t become worse.
I don't want my thoughts and feelings (or my written words) to be a contagion, numbing others from the emotional angst that will eventually motivate change. Instead, I can hope for transformation. In the process, I may once again remind myself of who I really am.
Adams, R. E., Figley, C. R., & Boscarino, J. A. (2007). The Compassion Fatigue Scale: Its use with social workers following urban disaster. Research on Social Work Practice, 18(3), 238-250.
Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. PNAS, 111(24). Doi: 10.1073/pnas/1320040111