Tackling psychologists’ desensitisation

Emily Kruger writes.

Desensitisation is the process whereby emotional responsiveness to aversive stimuli reduces. Although this can be an extremely helpful way of coping with psychological distress, it is reportedly a current issue among staff in mental health services.

Professionals working within mental health settings may become desensitised to patients’ difficulties, due to hearing distressing information and witnessing upsetting events on a regular basis. In time, this could lead to patients feeling invalidated and unimportant when telling their unique story. Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance between patients and staff. Unfortunately, patients may then begin to express themselves internally, which could later manifest as self-harm. Conversely, desensitisation may help professionals protect themselves from the emotional impact of patient distress; a way for mental health professions to look after their own wellbeing.

In tackling this issue, it is important to increase awareness of desensitisation and when it can become a problem in the workplace. Some services have started to introduce staff support groups, which provide a chance to check in with colleagues and identify desensitisation. It may also be of benefit to address compassion fatigue (emotional exhaustion and a profound decrease in ability to empathise), through increasing awareness and practising strategies such as self-care, personal hobbies, and mindfulness. This may help address the problem and the effect it can have on patients later down the line.

I would like to hear other views on desensitisation and compassion fatigue, and the services that may tackle this issue.

Emily Kruger
Assistant Psychologist

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