Dealing with Donor Fatigue
Hurricanes can demolish islands in a day, while fires may reduce entire neighborhoods to ash within hours. How do we help ourselves and others cope with sequential storms, when the need feels unlimited and available aid resources remain finite?
Donor fatigue, also known as compassion fatigue, has been a recognized phenomenon defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of suffering people, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” Disaster fatigue is a relatively new concept that has become all the more relevant in the wake of the recent series of natural disasters.
Being a bystander
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25th, I watched the headline news fill with photos of flooded highways and homes. I felt distress for families seeking food and shelter, despair for the newly married couple wading through the downstairs floor of their first house, and impatient for the federal relief that could not come fast enough. This was my country.
By the time Hurricane Irma hit on Sunday, September 10th, Harvey was no longer headline news, even while houses remained flooded and the EPA was making disquieting chemical discoveries on Texan shores. Newspapers tracked Florida’s preparation for Irma like an engaging story leading to its climax. In the same month, Mexico was struck by two major earthquakes over the span of two weeks and Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico on September 20th, killing over 50 people.
I tried to do my part: I attempted to place myself in the shoes of the victims and made donations when I could. And yet, these disasters weren’t mine, the tragedies weren’t visceral: the nationwide disasters hit like a dull pain. I couldn’t care enough, and yet I cared too much. My contributions felt like they would do little to alleviate anyone’s suffering, while the headlines kept filling with fresh disasters, with new relief organizations in need of donations and new storm victims in need of aid.
Disaster hits home
The infamous Diablo winds of Northern California picked up late on Sunday, October 8th, dispersing embers across counties like sowing seeds of destruction. My family evacuated in the middle of the night with the premature sunrise of flames in their rearview mirror. I sat transfixed by the screen as fires burned through vineyards, businesses, and the homes of old high school classmates and family friends. A lone pair of washing machines stood like monuments in the ashes of non-existent neighborhoods. My middle school art teacher made national news for surviving the night in a swimming pool with her husband.
My parents evacuated in slow-motion: during the initial days of the blazing fire, our house was safe. They returned several times to retrieve belongings they had forgotten on the first trip: photos, family heirlooms, irreplaceable childhood memorabilia. Then, the winds shifted and began to engulf the park near our house. Our neighborhood was officially evacuated. We spent several days in a weather-induced purgatory, scouring sites for the most up-to-date information. The night we thought we would lose our home, the winds never picked up and firefighters worked 72-hour shifts to contain the fire.
By the time the winds shifted enough to endanger my neighborhood, the fires were no longer front-page news. Fires only marginally contained had been relegated to the margins of newspapers. The reality of losing my home was more real than ever, and yet the nation had moved on. For several days papers reported the lack of containment, rising numbers of fatalities, profiles of people that left just minutes before their homes were engulfed in flames. And then, just like that, we vanished from the public awareness.
This was what the survivors of this fall’s hurricanes and earthquakes knew. Long after public concern had petered out and vanished, homes were still in ruins and repairs were stalling in the planning stage. For any area hit by a large natural disaster, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the fourth natural disaster this month or the first. The impact is just as devastating, the need just as dire.
While the fire was life-shattering for many in my hometown, my capacity to relate has been renewed. I no longer struggle to grasp the magnitude of a disaster’s impact or come up blank with a way to empathize. Simply acknowledging and supporting an area through the process of rebuilding and establishing a new “normal” can be a powerful form of support. Even if the fires are no longer burning and houses have drained their swampy waters, it may take years for the consistencies and networks of a town to be re-established.
Life on the Platform
How do disasters influence our texters at Crisis Text Line? We’ve found that texters reaching out about natural disasters are more likely to text in during the day and discuss finances, homelessness, and family issues. During the historic onslaught of hurricanes, we also noticed a significant increase in texters mentioning being homeless or struggling to find shelter (up to 20% of our conversations, as opposed to the usual 1%). Texters also reported more anxiety and stress, which may be a result of primary or secondary exposure to the natural disasters our country experienced this fall. Even for those not directly affected by a storm, reading about storm survivors, or worrying about displaced relatives, can influence one’s sense of well-being.
As Crisis Counselors, we have access to many useful referrals such as Disaster Assistance and CareConnect USA that can provide our texters with storm-related aid. Our job is to support them throughout the process and let them know we are on the platform 24/7 when they feel overwhelmed by the prospect of rebuilding or by what they are reading about in the news.
Managing disaster fatigue
In the age of ever-present media, tragedy can feel ubiquitous. Whether reading the headline news gives you a sense of hopelessness or inspires you to take action, it can be enough to exhaust anyone. Although it can be easy to feel like my contributions hardly make a dent, I consider my attention and concern for storm victims meaningful in and of itself. After the initial media-frenzy, storm victims are left to rebuild their lives while the available aid dwindles along with page views and clicks. Even when I can’t offer money, I hope my acknowledgement can be a heartening reminder to survivors that they have not been forgotten.
The experience of having my hometown at the center of the most catastrophic fire in California history reinforced for me that providing the highest quality of help to others is contingent upon taking care of yourself. In my life, this means turning off my cell phone an hour before bed and reading something other than the headline news first thing in the morning (to go along with my big mug of coffee). With the growing popularity of social media, I discovered that taking a proactive and personalized approach to dealing with heightened disaster exposure can help myself and others weather the storm.
Liana Meffert has been an active Crisis Counselor since November 2016 and is currently a research fellow studying adolescent depression at the National Institutes of Mental Health. In her free time, she enjoys writing, running, and spoiling her dog.