Compassion Fatigue: How News Can Impact Mental Health

May 22, 2017

When it comes to news in an era of social media and 24-hour coverage, we’re faced with a question: How much is too much?

Kim Hixson is head of the Journalism and Communications Department at Utah State University. He said that part of what makes news so negative is how journalists determine what to report. When students learn about newsworthiness, they focus on a few key factors, including its relevance to the reader.

“For the most part,” Hixson said, “I think people want to know, 'Okay, there’s this event out there that has happened, how is it going to affect me personally?'”

Because so much of newsworthiness is future and change oriented, news coverage has what he sees as a necessary element of negativity.

“Good news is wonderful to hear,” Hixson said. “But for the most part, we’re thinking about, 'What’s the government doing, and how does it affect us, what’s happening to our environment and how’s it going to affect us, what’s happening to the economy.'”

However, this negativity has been proven to have an effect on those who are overexposed to it.

Patricia Smith is the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. During her 20-year career, she’s helped to educate caregivers, doctors and others about its effects. Compassion fatigue is the toll taken on those who help others in traumatic situations, sometimes described as the “cost of caring.” It can cause stress, and limit our ability to continue to feel empathy.

Smith said the way we experience news coverage can also create compassion fatigue. One way to know if it’s affecting you: listen to your body.

“What I try to do in trainings is to have people shut their eyes and quietly think of something that is very disturbing to them. And then listen to their bodies. Do they find their hands all clenched? Do they get an immediate headache? Does it go right to your stomach?” Smith asked. “Your body will tell you when enough is enough.”

From there, she said it’s all about boundaries and self-care. For caregivers, it’s important to remember to care for yourself. She gave the same advice for those who feel overwhelmed by coverage of current events.

“Limit. Limit what you’re viewing. Limit what you’re reading. Limit what you’re seeing. It’s all about boundaries, personal boundaries,” she said. “Know when you’re being affected, and do something healthy for yourself.”