Social justice is foundational to Counseling Psychology. Our colleagues have written extensively on this topic and on compassion fatigue (e.g., Dr. Candice Hargon’s meditations for Black Lives Matter and healing racial trauma; Asia Eaton and Leah Warner’s forthcoming chapter on social justice burnout and self-care: Eaton A.A., & Warner, L. (invited for publication)). As the political arena becomes more feverish, it is hard to keep up with everything.
Several months back, I volunteered to write a piece on the proposed taxation of graduate tuition waivers for SCP. The twist: apparently the waiver had been nixed a month before I signed up to write the piece. This was something I felt passionately about: I called my senators and congressman when the issue first emerged and processed the waiver proposal with my own graduate students. How did I not know that the waiver had not been part of the final tax package?
Dr. Romines Latino, a staff psychologist at the University of Cincinnati, spoke with me about how we are missing the full narrative of personally and professionally relevant political issues. Dr. Romines Latino articulated the point that clinicians are holding each political trauma twice – once for themselves and once for their clients (or students, etc.).
ERL: When you told me [the waiver had not passed] I assumed, “oh I must not be paying attention.” Because I have taken a big step back from how much news I can consume since the [presidential] election.
SWB: I think there is an element of self-care in taking a step back, which is incredibly important.
ERL: I think a lot of us in helping professions feel like what we are working towards (i.e. helping people) is being set on fire multiple times a day.
SWB: How are your clients handling everything?
ERL: There is a huge impact on so many levels. I think we see waves of panic that surface when a new item drops that impacts students. This generation is amazing though….They get a lot of guff about lack of resilience but I think life is genuinely harder for young people now than when I was that age. It is a lot of sitting with people in the unknown and pain. I mean a lot of therapy is always like that, but it feels different to sit with someone who does not know if they will be kicked out of the country, or sit with a group of sexual assault survivors who have a president that has bragged about assaulting others.
SWB: It almost sounds like vicarious trauma, on top of your own frustration or fatigue.
ERL: I do not think it is vicarious trauma at this point, but it definitely felt that way after the election. It was really challenging to be in the role of therapist trying to help people process what I was going through at the same time.
We noted a common process as we advocate on behalf of ourselves and others – fatigue will unsurprisingly set in faster and leaves us unable to keep up or check on the issues on which we’ve directly taken action.
SWB: How do we keep track of what is happening to an issue and not get exhausted and overwhelmed or distracted?
ERL: It is a tough question…there are certain issues I feel more qualified as an advocate. When so many things are happening so quickly it is difficult to feel like I have an informed opinion about what is going on.
SWB: We have been trained to be experts, to really know things in detail. That is hard here and perhaps causes doubt, “what makes me an expert?”
ERL: Yes. I think I have a high bar for myself when it comes to having an opinion on issues outside of my area. We have a responsibility as experts in Psychology to educate our representatives and advocate for others. However, these things move fast! I find it challenging to keep up and respond in a timely way to what is happening in an informed way.
The frenzy of responding to each political assault leaves us exhausted, perceiving ourselves to be under-informed (whether or not that is actually true), and unable to recognize the victories we did achieve. The last point is critical. How often do we celebrate our political victories and effective, influential use of our voice? Stopping for a moment to appreciate the victories – without being self-congratulatory – likely builds self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is needed, and as Dr. Romines Latino and I noted in our talk, a lack of self-efficacy may be keeping us from acting more (as seen in our hesitation to use our “expert” voices).
How can we check in and make sure we’re acknowledging the positives when they do happen? I admit I think the question is somewhat trite, when new examples of human rights violations emerge every time I refresh my news tab on my phone. But, observing and celebrating concrete victories when they happen can be salves in the struggle. Here are two ideas to start:
- Is it a marathon or a sprint? I try to focus on 1-2 key issues consistently (mental health narratives around gun violence, for example) and make a note to check in on them regularly. Checking in means I am less likely to engage in a “hot potato” approach, where I continually engage an issue and then move immediately to another one once I’ve done my part. While that is still important, having 1-2 long-term, endurance issues is helpful because you can try to track the change in depth over time. I treated the graduate student tuition issue as a hot potato and promptly missed the victory part.
- Buddy system. Do you have a colleague or friend who focuses on the same social justice issues? When something good happens, share that information with your buddy. Take a few moments to reflect on (a) how the change happened (or in the tax case, change was prevented) and (b) the fact that advocates affected that change.
Now, go call a senator.
Eaton, A. A., & Warner, L. (invited for publication). Social justice burnout: Engaging self-care while doing diversity work. In M. Kite, K. Case, & W. Williams (Eds.), Navigating
Difficult Moments in Teaching Social Justice. Hargons, C. N. (August 2017). Black Lives Matter meditations. Retrieved from
Stephanie Winkeljohn Black, Ph.D. is a counseling psychologist and assistant professor at Penn State Harrisburg