Director and producer Vic Compher’s documentary film, Portraits of Professional Caregivers: Their Passion. Their Pain, takes a deeper look at the causes of and treatments for what’s called secondary traumatic stress, a condition commonly suffered by professional caregivers. The film interviews about a dozen caregivers, ranging from social workers to psychologists, professors, nurses, and first responders in the police force and fire departments of Philadelphia, although some shots are of New York City during and after the September 11 attacks. The film’s coproducer is Rodney Whittenberg, who also composed the musical riffs that score some of the scenes.
You won’t see actual violence or death in this film but you’ll feel it from looking at the faces of the caregivers as they describe traumatic incidents in their work. In the beginning of the film, the camera focuses briefly on each of half a dozen caregivers. As they speak, the film morphs from color to stark black and white, then freezes as anguish, sorrow, and hopelessness appears on each caregiver’s face. A social worker tells of a child’s death she felt she should have prevented. A neonatal nurse talks of a baby who died in her care. An older family therapist collapses after witnessing a brutal scene with one of her patients. (These and other scenes are depicted with stick figures, which are used to illustrate several violent incidents.)
The film goes into the neuroscience of the stress reaction, explaining that our brains actual respond to pain others are experiencing by secreting chemicals that activate our central nervous system. It’s only later that we can appraise and try to distance ourselves from a situation, says Dr. Sandra Bloom, associate professor of public health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
But most caregivers would agree that “empathy is an occupational hazard because you can’t do good work without it,” according to Charles R. Figley, professor at the School of Social Work at Tulane University. The stress leaves “fingerprints on your heart,” he says. And physical symptoms for secondary stress range the gamut from anger, depression, rapid heart rates, fatigue, and insomnia to suicide.
Police experience the highest incidence of secondary traumatic stress, and their life span is ten years shorter than the average as a result, says Charles H. Ramsey, commissioner, Philadelphia Police Department. “The police, like the military,” says Professor Figley, “are the worst at admitting psychosocial problems. They need someone within their own ranks to guide them.”
The documentary is not all doom and gloom. After the pain, or maybe preceding it, there’s the passion. It’s called compassion satisfaction and it’s what drives people in the caregiving profession. “The work is fulfilling,” says one social worker, “so you don’t stop.”
Bloom says that organizations need to build healthier environments that have mechanisms in place to calm down their caregivers. “We need to allot time to share stories with a facilitator who can process it in a meaningful way.” One scene in the film shows Philadelphia fire emergency responders in what’s called an emotional first aid session letting out their feelings of guilt and sorrow at not being able to save a life.
Regular self-care activities – exercise, gardening, meditating, and painting – are ways to distance oneself from the stresses of work. But in the end, most of these caregivers enjoy the challenge of helping others. Says Figley, “It’s a privilege to be working with traumatized people. Compassion satisfaction counterbalances compassion fatigue.”
Adds a hospice worker, “It reminds you of what’s important in life. It’s the gift that all these patients give to us.”
And this film is a gift to caregivers and to all those who receive their care as well.
For a trailer of the film and more details, see www.caregiversfilm.com.