Alda Counselling

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Mental Illness or Human Suffering?

In recent years, we are becoming more acceptant of labels belonging to the medical professions in our everyday life. For example, mental illness, bipolar, depression. Some of these terms are increasingly used to identify human states of mind and mood that might have been considered in the past as a normal part of human suffering. So how do we know when we are mentally ill or just suffering as humans?

Human suffering is usually a temporary condition, whereas mental illness can be more permanent. If someone close to you dies, it is normal to feel sad. But if you continue feeling sad years after it happened, you may be struggling with something more serious, like a depression. However, there is a very fine line between these two concepts because if you believe that you are mentally ill, or depressed, then you will be. Society might influence your own judgement and your doctor’s or counsellor’s judgement regarding whether you are effectively ill or just suffering as a human being.

As Summerfield states in Cross cultural perspectives on the medicalisation of human suffering, “the attitudes of wider society (which may change over time) shape what individual victims feel has been done to them and the vocabulary they use to describe this, whether or how they seek help, and their expectations of recovery.” If the wider society believes that a traumatised person must be carrying a heavy load that will impact negatively on their future life, that person will be prone to carry such a load and feel that negative impact. That would prevent them from seeing the other side of trauma, which normally brings growth and a deeper appreciation of life.

Many of the people that I work with are suffering due to the heavy load of living in an individualistic society that tends to label them and does not leave room for their human suffering and recovery. In some cultures, there are no words for depression. A person is part of a group, and the group will help and accept what is happening to the person. This person does not feel stigmatised and isolated, and eventually moves on. There is no stigma as suffering is considered a human characteristic dealt with in a community of human beings. In our society, there seems to be an expectation to be independent and happy. In such a society, is there a place for human suffering? Are we able to ask for help to family and friends? Are we too quick to label human suffering as mental illness, as something that needs fixing?

I wonder whether we need more communities to accompany each other in this journey that is our life and especially when we experience human suffering. I wonder whether we can accompany another person and let another person accompany us when our life seems like a challenge. In my opinion, counselling is a journey in which one person feels accompanied by a professional who is able to accept and understand human suffering. This acceptance and understanding makes the “sufferer” accept and understand his or her predicament and transform his or her life. Counselling is also a tool to help the “sufferer” learn how to find resources within themselves and in their communities so that when further suffering occurs, they would know how to cope with it.

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5 symptoms of compassion fatigue in carers

Compassion fatigue, also known as burnout, can appear in workers exposed to suffering on a daily basis. Nurses, care workers, doctors, counsellors are all exposed to compassion fatigue. They work with people who are not well every day and their suffering can affect them. Early detection of symptoms of compassion fatigue can prevent more serious symptoms. Five early symptoms of compassion fatigue are as follows:

  • Frequent colds: We may think they are related to the weather, to not wearing the right clothes, to the children being frequently ill as they catch colds in school, to a temporary stage of our lives. Be careful. It could also be a symptom that you are developing compassion fatigue.
  • Reduced sense of accomplishment: Did your job feel like you were really helping others and it is starting to put you down? Does the day feel longer than it used to? You may have forgotten the reasons that brought you to this job in the first place. You may start developing some symptoms of compassion fatigue.
  • Headaches and fatigue: This may be a normal part of your life by now. You have a headache, take an Ibuprofen and forget about it. You tell yourself that it is normal to be tired trying to joggle work, family life and caring for your parents. It may well be, but it can also be a sign that you are doing far too much for others and starting to burn out.
  • Moodiness and increased interpersonal conflict: If you find yourself snapping at your loved ones for no good reason, having frequent mood swings, and/or starting to feel like you would like to be on your own for often than usual, you may be developing compassion fatigue.
  • Lack of meaning: Eventually, if you don’t pay attention to those symptoms, they may deteriorate, and you may feel numb, disillusioned and you may lose meaning. Your life may appear as having no sense at all.

Some of the more serious symptoms of compassion fatigue are similar to PTSD symptoms, experienced by trauma sufferers. Compassion fatigue is also known as vicarious traumatization. Good news is that you can recognize these symptoms and allow yourself to put yourself first. You need to look after yourself and discover your own ways of making yourself fulfilled and happy on a daily basis. This is known as post-traumatic growth. Empathy can bring you to experience human suffering and develop compassion fatigue; looking after yourself (post-traumatic growth) can help you find higher meaning and connection to others.

Also read: 5 tips to avoid compassion fatigue

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5 tips to avoid compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue, also known as burnout, can appear in caregivers exposed to suffering on a daily basis. Nurses, care workers, doctors, counsellors are all exposed to compassion fatigue. We work with people who experience suffering every day and their suffering can affect us. Early detection of symptoms of compassion fatigue can prevent more serious symptoms. Here are five tips to recognize and avoid compassion fatigue:

  • Take care of your body: If you start feeling the effects of compassion fatigue, such as rapid heartbeat, dizziness, headaches, difficulty sleeping or falling asleep, remember the basics of looking after your body: healthy diet, daily exercise.
  • Look after your mind: Cognitive symptoms of compassion fatigue include lowered concentration, disillusionment, apathy, preoccupation with trauma. If you have any of these symptoms, it may be useful to calm your mind through meditative practices: yoga, tai chi, qi gong, meditation.
  • Express your feelings: Working with people suffering on a daily basis can be taxing for anyone. You may start experiencing powerlessness, anxiety, guilt, anger, numbness, fear, sadness. You may also experience dreams similar to your patients or you may suddenly recall frightening experiences. It may be useful to share your feelings in a supportive environment. Check if there are support groups for caregivers at work or in your area. Do some counselling sessions with a qualified counsellor.


  • Stay connected: Caregivers who are close to burnout often tend to isolate themselves. Because of their mood swings, irritability, poor sleep and other symptoms, they may have more interpersonal conflicts at work and in their families. If you observe that you tend to isolate yourself, watch out. You may be starting to develop compassion fatigue. Stay connected with your family and friends. Find a new hobby and create new relationships with other people. Go out, dance, walk, be creative in the ways you can relate to others, but stay connected.
  • Find space for spirituality in your life: If you start questioning life’s meaning, feel that you have lost your purpose and you become sceptical about things that made a lot of sense earlier in your life, it is time to start a spiritual practice. Being spiritual doesn’t mean that you need to join your local parish and go to the regular services. It can mean just walking in nature and commune with the divine within or outside. Find some quiet time for yourself.

If you believe that finding time to look after yourself is indulgent or selfish, think twice. If you get burnout, you will be of no help to anyone. It is altruistic to actually look after your health, spend some time doing what you enjoy doing in life, stay connected with family and friends, develop a spiritual practice. All of those things will make you a better carer and will help you avoid compassion fatigue.