Months into Fort McMurray's wildfire recovery, compassion fatigue could be settling in

Fort McMurray social organizations hold compassion fatigue workshops to help them cope with all the traumatic stories they’ve been hearing.

Workshops this week in Fort McMurray stress need for self-care among frontline workers.

Seven months after the Fort McMurray wildfire, there's worry the staff of social organizations are being stretched under the weight of people seeking help. (CBC)

The seven-month mark of Fort McMurray's wildfire recovery is a dark time for some of the city's frontline social and aid workers.

The hours of sunlight in Canada's oilsands capital are few but there are thousands of residents downloading stories of stress and trauma on crisis support workers.

It's enough to raise worries some support workers could be suffering from compassion fatigue, even within one of the city's crisis agencies.

"I've been running harder and faster," said Linda Sovdi a manager at Fort McMurray's Some other Solutions or SOS for short.

SOS runs a crisis hotline and health and wellness programs in the community. In addition to its usual clients, the agency is seen more teachers, councillors and wildfire first responders seeking their help.

Linda Sovdi, a manager at Fort McMurray's Some other Solutions, has been finding it harder to cope in the aftermath of the wildfire. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

While SOS is dedicated to its mission to help others, Sovdi said there are worries about the well-being of staff members who hear traumatic stories daily.

"Yes, for me personally, to a huge degree, my tank is on empty and I've been asking how do I refuel?" Sovdi said.

What's compassion fatigue?

Fort McMurray has seen record numbers of people accessing mental health services in the aftermath of the wildfire.

Alberta Health Services said as of August more than 20,000 people have reached out for mental health services. That's higher than usual.

Facilitator Charmaine Hammond lead Compassion Fatigue workshops in Fort McMurray this week. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Recognizing the need to reach out to social workers, Fort McMurray's Fuse Social hosted a seminar on compassion fatigue for the non-profits it supports this week.

Compassion fatigue, said lead facilitator Charmaine Hammond, happens when people who are caring for others can become exhausted from hearing the stories and traumas that people have experienced.

Her session taught attendees how to manage this form of burnout and how not to take out frustrations on their clients.

"And it's a really delicate skill base and one that is so important for professionals," Hammond said.

If ignored, in severe cases, alcoholism, depression and even suicide could surface as a way of coping.

Coping strategies

Sovdi, who also facilitated the sessions, spoke about her own coping strategies which include evening walks, talking to others and sometimes saying no to extra work or appointments.

Wood Buffalo recovery committee member Maggie Farrington has been emphasizing the need for caring for others and oneself through her social media accounts. Every day she tweets and Instagrams a positive message, and encourages others to do the same.

"Absolutely, for those who are doing the front-line services in the social [agencies] that are leading the way for others I am absolutely noticing there is that concept of compassion fatigue," Farrington said.

"Not to say they are tired of of being compassionate, but it's just so hard. Especially for some of those who are leading those charges who are going through a lot themselves."

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter and via email