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Stray dog (Shuttterstock)
Stray dog (Shuttterstock)

JUST a few days ago, a friend shared this story with me:

In September of 2014, 48-year-old veterinary behaviourist and best-selling author Dr Sophia Yin died of suicide. Dr Yin was a trailblazer in the dog training community. She wrote books, created instructional videos, and developed tools for positive reinforcement training.

In the Huffington Post, Anna Jane Grossman writes that it is impossible to understate Dr Yin’s contribution to the world.
It is, perhaps, this overwhelming dedication to animals that led her to take her own life. According to those closest to her, Dr Yin likely suffered from compassion fatigue.

Charles Figely, Ph.D., Director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute, defines compassion fatigue as:
“Emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.”

Compassion fatigue is also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder” (STSD). The symptoms of STSD are similar to PTSD. As with PTSD, compassion fatigue can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
STSD is not rare and Dr Yin’s suffering was not unusual.

It raised the hairs on my neck. I know someone who works in animal welfare and who has from time to time expressed depression of such a profound nature that I’ve feared for her.

“What difference do I make?” she demanded once.

“You make a difference every day!” I exclaimed.

“But it never ends, Mandi. We never make any headway. There’s always another cruelty case, another shocking case of neglect, another animal with wire embedded in its neck…”

I’ve also known or interviewed people working on social issues, who see abused children, battered women, starvation, horrible cases of poverty so desperate you cannot believe it is possible in our country, at this time. All of them are deeply committed, driven individuals; many are scarred by the work they do.

Figley, who co-authored Compassion Fatigue: Coping With Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized, wrote that, “there is a cost to caring. Professionals who listen to clients’ stories of fear, pain, and suffering may feel similar fear, pain, and suffering because they care.”

Precisely because they care, precisely because they have the genuine empathy that led them to their vocation, these people suffer. And their suffering goes so under the radar! It’s a silent epidemic.

Their stresses are compounded by the fact that many of them work in small non-profits which are battling to get funding as various sources dry up, thanks to the never-ending financial crisis – the fallout just keeps rolling on, and one of the effects is greater funding challenges for many little organisations that do critically important work for very vulnerable constituencies.

In addition, “Complicated procedures, and compliance with rules more appropriate for businesses rather than NPOs, place great burdens on small, understaffed, and cash strapped organisations,” writes Inyathelo, a non-profit trust aimed at building civil society capacity.

People like my friend fill some of the enormous gaping holes in our society (and in others – it’s a worldwide phenomenon). If the state services don’t provide support to rape survivors, NGOs do; if people are starving in our highly inequitable country (and starvation is, indeed, happening, quietly and without fuss, in certain communities) then an NGO will attempt to meet the need; if the township streets are full of hungry, sickly dogs, an NGO like my friend’s will step in to treat, neuter and educate, so that children are at less risk of bite injuries and zoonotic diseases, and fewer hopeless puppies are born.

The people who are driven to serve and empower communities are doing all of us a service. The side-effects of poverty and despair affect us all; whether it’s a greater burden of disease that sucks up more and more of our health budget, or a higher rate of violence (and also of crime), the things the NGOs tackle have costs for our country, whether we are able to assess them or not, and one way or other. So there’s a socio-economic reason to value and support them.

I worry about our non-profit sector, which has been buckling under multiple strains in recent years.

Dear readers, please support them. Find one that tackles a cause you can care about; find one close to home, that you can visit and volunteer at (there’s scientific proof that regular volunteer work is associated with better health, so do it for selfish reasons if you like!); find one you can donate in kind to, if you don’t have much in the way of available cash.

But for the health of our society, and for the mental health and wellbeing of those precious souls whose lives are consumed by this work, do something to ease their plight.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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