ASF Winter Retreat

Current Fellows Renee Pan and Anthony Wilson Reflect on Lessons Learned at the ASF Winter Retreat

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

Who cares for the caregivers?`

Unfortunately, this isn’t a question that’s asked enough. But self-care for health care professionals and other service providers was one of the focal points of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Winter Retreat, which was hosted on January 21 at Samford University’s College of Health Sciences.

Using the lens of domestic violence, this one-day retreat explored how healthcare professionals and service providers can develop systems of care for both their clients and themselves.

Understanding the systems that adult victims encounter

The retreat kicked off with a session designed to help Fellows better understand the systems that adult victims of domestic violence encounter and the impact this can have on a person’s mental health and emotional well-being.

This dynamic panel discussion featured Hon. Gabrielle N. Helix, Domestic Violence Resource Prosecutor, Alabama Office of Prosecution Services; Danielle Mars, Project Coordinator, One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center; and Abby Humphries, Court Advocate, Domestic Violence Crisis Services.

“Victims may have to navigate multiple systems, such as the criminal justice system, the healthcare system, and social services — each with their own processes, procedures, and timelines,” says Renee Pan, a fellow from Auburn University School of Education who, for her ASF project, is working with young adults with disabilities and their caregivers. “This can be overwhelming and confusing for victims. Understanding these systems and how they interact is essential to provide appropriate support and advocacy.”

Renee adds that one of the best ways service providers can better help victims is to work together.

“Collaboration and communication among the different systems and agencies are critical to ensuring that victims receive the support they need, and their rights are protected,” she says. “This includes building strong partnerships among organizations, agencies, and service providers and ensuring that victims are empowered to make informed decisions about their support and recovery.”

Most healthcare professionals and other service providers are aware that long-term mental health treatments can be helpful for victims of sexual assault or violence. But Renee says at the winter retreat she learned that this alone isn’t enough to help victims heal.

“The most important element is establishing a warm, caring, collaborative relationship between the caregivers and the individual seeking help,” she says. “One Place Family Justice Center has perfectly actualized this concept by creating a unique environment for individuals who have experienced traumatic events where all the professionals provide the service at one stop.”

Understanding barriers from a victim’s perspective

The retreat continued with a discussion on the barriers that can keep victims from getting the help they need. This panel featured Stacy Thomas, LPC, MA, Det. Corporal Mental Health Officer, Madison Police Department and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Liana Hill, MSC, RN, Forensic Nurse Program Manager, Crisis Center of North Alabama.

Even those who don’t work in the healthcare or social services space may understand that barriers such as a lack of information or financial resources can keep victims of domestic violence from seeking help. But during the winter retreat, fellows examined the intangible factors that can also stand in the way.

Victims may face many barriers preventing them from seeking help, such as fear, shame, mistrust,” says Anthony Wilson, a fellow from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine who, for his ASF project, is helping to create mentorship opportunities for underserved youth in Huntsville.  “Understanding and recognizing these barriers is important to provide appropriate support and assistance.”

Providing culturally appropriate care is also essential, Anthony added.

“It is also important to remember that the barriers that a victim might face are not only related to the immediate aftermath of the crime but also to the long-term healing process,” Anthony says. “Some victims might experience retraumatization when facing the legal system, others might face social isolation or discrimination, and others might have difficulty accessing services and resources.”

Systems of Care for the Caregivers

Helping victims navigate the rocky road to healing can take a toll – mentally, emotionally, and physically — on healthcare providers and social service professionals.

Burnout is real and, unfortunately, quite common.

Renee explains that symptoms of burnout include

  • Emotional exhaustion, which can cause feelings of fatigue, apathy, and depletion.
  • Depersonalization, which is a feeling of detachment or disconnection from one’s work or personal life.
  • Reduced personal accomplishment, which is characterized by feelings of failure or inadequacy

When you’re suffering from burnout you may lose your sense of empathy or compassion or you may feel that your work isn’t making a difference.

But there are things that caregivers can do to better care for themselves and prevent burnout.

First, remember that self-care is not selfish.

“Self-care is not an indulgence but an essential component of preventing distress and burnout,” Renee says. “It shouldn’t be considered as an extra or something nice to do if we have the time but a focus on our holistic wellness, including physical, mental, and social health so that we can be the best version of ourselves.”

Renee shares that the retreat helped her realize she needs to set better boundaries with her work, which includes allowing herself some solitude at least one afternoon a week.

Guest speaker, Dr. Larissa Strath, PhD (2019-20 FFL), discussed the importance of mindful eating, which inspired Renee to commit to cooking her own meals no matter how busy she is.

“The way I cook is a little paradise I create for myself since I find cooking very comforting,” Renee says. “I can not only control the nutrition I take in but turning the food into cuisine also gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

Self-care looks different for everyone.

Anthony is going to strive to exercise regularly and get more rest. Relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga can also reduce stress.

It’s also important to make self-care a regular part of your routine, rather than an occasional treat, to achieve the most benefits.

The goal is to figure out what works best for you and do it because you can’t pour from an empty cup.