Help the Helpers: Taking Time for Self-Care

August 10, 2018

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Elly Stout, MS, SPRC Director, Education Development Center

I often reflect on how fortunate we are, in suicide prevention and related fields, to work with such compassionate people, dedicated to reducing suffering and saving lives. Whether working at the national, state, or community level, we regularly meet people who work tirelessly to help others—day and night, week after week. Many of us have lost someone to suicide or struggled with suicidal thoughts ourselves, but we channel those experiences to help make positive change by fostering connection and hope. But in spite of the strengths we bring to our work, we are not immune to the challenges. When a celebrity suicide death prompts a massive media response, but the many others who die by suicide seem to receive little attention, it can feel disheartening. When we continue to see rising suicide rates and witness the increasing struggles of those in our communities, it can feel like we’re not making a difference. When we hear a narrative of mounting despair, we can lose hope in our prevention efforts. At moments like these, we need to remember to take care of ourselves so we can continue our work of caring for others.

Self-care is well-known to those of you in the mental health field, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. In the face of bad news and discouraging setbacks, we need to take the time to be kind to ourselves, and practice the coping skills that help us manage stress and get through challenging moments. A SAMHSA article on self-care for providers offers several strategies, such as taking care of your physical and psychological health, nurturing your relationships, and seeking professional help if needed. The specific self-care strategies that each of us uses may differ, depending on what works best for us. This self-care starter kit from the University at Buffalo School of Social Work offers a number of worksheets to help you think through coping strategies and a self-care plan, as well as additional resources for self-assessments and self-care exercises.

In addition to self-care, we also need to keep telling stories of hope—at both the personal and professional level. While grim statistics and stories of loss are tough realities, it’s important not to forget about the lives that are saved every day because of the hard work and dedication of people in our field all across the country. Let’s operate from a strengths-based approach that starts with the good we are doing every day, and then challenge ourselves to do even better. Let’s celebrate our successes. Our field has dramatically improved at telling individual stories of hope and recovery—let’s also tell the stories of how prevention efforts are working. SPRC’s Surveillance Success Stories provide some examples.

If we want to make a difference, we all need to make self-care a priority. The more resilient we are, the more we can persist when faced with setbacks. Many of us may be called on to work even harder when times are difficult, but it’s important that we pause to restore our depleted energy so we can continue our work with renewed commitment. Even the wisest and most caring helpers have to take care of themselves first. And if you’re not taking care of yourself—no matter your role—the stress and strain will affect your work, relationships, and ability to care for others. I invite you to take a moment after reading this to take just five minutes for yourself. Do something that relaxes, restores, or recharges you—even if it’s just five minutes of doing nothing at all. Thank you for taking care of you!