Suffering Compassion Fatigue

The TV images are riveting: the rolling waves swamping people’s homes, beams of houses turned into matchsticks, toys covered in seas of mud, a tattered Polaroid picture of a family in happier times, the tears at lives lost or destroyed.

First, the Asian tsunami brought $1.3 billion in charitable donations, then Hurricane Katrina prompted contributions of more than $1.2 billion _ and counting. And now here comes Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas coast.

Had enough?

Well don’t feel guilty if you tune out and read a book, say the experts. It’s OK to suffer from compassion fatigue _ and it’s a healthy reaction, too.

“It’s not unlike a meal and having the ability to stop eating. We seem to have this built-in sense this is enough for now and push away from the table,” said Charles Figley, a professor and director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University. “People shouldn’t feel guilty at all.”

Figley said he saw a similar reaction in Florida last year after the state was battered by four hurricanes and a tropical storm, exhausting teams of first responders, volunteers as well as most Floridians. By the time the fourth hurricane hit, it was no longer a novelty and had become a real drag on their lives, he said.

“It does have a cumulative negative impact. You could call it hurricane fatigue or compassion fatigue or whatever,” he said.

Once Rita hits, a new disaster relief effort in Texas will hit hardest at Red Cross volunteers, who have been running at top speed for three weeks and are too exhausted to deal with another crisis, Figley said.

“The Red Cross has brought in 40,000 volunteers for Katrina and has been going through people, literally,” he said. “The issue that hasn’t been addressed is the harm for those in the helping role. These are people who give and give and give. But I can see with Rita they are going to say to themselves, or their supervisors or their neighbors, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”

Joshua Estrin, a licensed psychotherapist in Florida who has dealt with victims of disasters, said fatigue is a natural human condition and needs to be accepted, whether it’s volunteers, or police or TV viewers.

Estrin said non-stop news images bombing viewers with pictures of disasters have a numbing effect after a while.

“Compassion isn’t an infinite well, but a battery that can run down too. People become too tired to care,” said Estrin. He said it’s a natural reaction for people to step back, read a book and recharge their batteries.

He said charities might be the first to feel compassion fatigue, with donations dropping after the huge collections this year for the tsunami and Katrina. Estrin expects this will hit hardest at smaller charities because larger ones have the financial backing to weather a period when fund-raising dries up.

Susan Moeller, a University of Maryland journalism professor who wrote the book “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death,” said hurricanes are natural made-for-modern-media productions that gain huge readers and audiences.

“But the public begins to turn away from crises when they feel helpless: that’s there’s nothing they can do, or nothing more that they can do,” she said. “People have an internal switch off.”

Joanne Nigg, former director the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware and a professor of sociology there, said she doesn’t agree that Americans are feeling any compassion fatigue, and she noted that interest in the development of Hurricane Rita remains high.

Nigg said America’s society today is so spread out that people closely follow disasters in other states because they have relatives or friends living there who are affected.

“People get hooked in _ they watch the hurricane developing, and they see it coming,” she said, recalling that she has friends across the country who have telephoned her with the latest updates of Rita, even though Delaware is hardly affected. “These are public dramas,” she said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)