Self-care When Caring for Others

By Rachel Dorman, MS and Heidi Radunovich, PhD

In previous posts we’ve discussed how hearing about clients’ traumatic experiences can have adverse effects on mental health practitioners. In today’s post we’re continuing the conversation focusing on military psychologists, a type of mental health practitioner prone to compassion fatigue and secondary trauma syndrome (STS) due to the nature and environment of their work during military conflict. It is critical for this vulnerable population to actively take steps to ensure their competence to practice as outlined in the APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Johnson, Bertschinger, Snell and Wilson (2014) discuss the unique risks military psychologists face that can result in compassion fatigue and secondary trauma syndrome which can leave them vulnerable to personal distress and compromise their competence to practice. The researchers also provide recommendations for military psychologists and the military psychology community in combating compassion fatigue and secondary trauma syndrome.

Woman taking care of older man
[Flickr, Walker_Caregiver_07_800x533 by Brian Walker, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 23, 2015
Recommendations include having mental health professionals who work with the military take action to protect themselves from the risks of their demanding vocation by pursuing personal wellness and self-care through:

  • engaging in physical activity
  • eating well
  • getting adequate sleep
  • developing a healthy work-life balance
  • engaging in enjoyable activities
  • managing one’s case load to consciously balance cases that will demand more
  • getting involved in professional development
  • monitoring emotional wellness
  • regularly engaging with close colleagues and friends for support and interaction

The researchers emphasize the importance of close colleagues during wartime deployment, as these relationships can provide peer consultation and supervision, helping to remain self-aware of their emotional and professional competence. Finally, the researchers explain that practitioners who have returned from deployment are at greater risk of emotional exhaustion and residual trauma. Consequently, self-care and self-assessment after they returned from deployment are critical for their wellness. Supervisors and leaders who work with mental health professionals, particularly those who deploy, should also be aware of these issues and sensitive to the needs of their personnel.

Candle burning on both ends
[Flickr, From Both Ends by gfpeck, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 17, 2015
Military clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals are pivotal to the health and wellness of our military members and are evermore needed during times of conflict. Fortunately, there are helpful steps mental health care providers can take to combat the unique risks they face. One of the recommendations is continued education and professional development, which is something that MFLN’s Family Development concentration provides. If you are interested in gaining more professional development opportunities, please explore our webpages that house information on webinarsresources and past blog posts.


[1] Johnson, B., Bertschinger, M., Snell, A., & Wilson, A. (2014). Secondary trauma and ethical obligations for military psychologists: Preserving compassion and competence in the crucible of combat. Psychological Services, 11(1), p. 68-74. DOI: 10.1037/a0033913

This post was written by Rachel Dorman, M.S. and Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, You Tube, and on LinkedIn.

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