‘It’s a job you take home’: Dealing with burnout in the advocacy community

Click to play video: 'Identifying and dealing with burnout'
Identifying and dealing with burnout
The World Health Organization now says burnout is a legitimate medical diagnosis and is recognized by the International Classification of Diseases. Dr. Beth Donaldson of Copeman Healthcare explains what burnout is and how it can be dealt – Jun 3, 2019

It’s been nearly nine years since Amy Graves lost her brother to a prescription drug overdose.

Joshua Graves, who was only 21, overdosed on a mixture of alcohol and hydromorphone. Since then, Graves has been on the front lines of a grassroots movement calling for action on the opioid crisis.

Through the rallies, political discourse and her tireless crusade for awareness, Graves never failed to make her voice heard. That’s why for some it came as a shock when she announced last month that for her, public advocacy would end.

“I just found it very overwhelming,” Graves told Global News.

And Graves isn’t alone. Advocates across Canada say burnout is something they deal with on a daily basis. For many, it becomes difficult to constantly be around people who are impacted by the same addictions their loved ones have faced.

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Some push forward, while others draw back. But according to the advocates themselves, few feel comfortable discussing the impact.

‘Advocacy had become unhealthy,’ Graves says

Amy Graves holds a rally against street proscription drugs nine days after the death of her brother Joshua.
Amy Graves holds a rally against street proscription drugs nine days after the death of her brother Joshua. Submitted

In the days that followed her brother’s death, Graves founded the Get Prescription Drugs of the Street Society (GPDOTS), which evolved into a non-profit three years later. Over time the organization’s mission evolved as the country’s opioid epidemic became a priority.

READ MORE: Burnout: Here’s how to recognize the symptoms

Though reliving the trauma of her brother’s death was taxing, it was a chance run-in while on the job that sent Graves to therapy. She was attacked by an inmate while working at a federal prison in maximum security two years ago.

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During the yearlong trauma program that followed, her advocacy was put on hold. 

“That’s when I had to kind of evaluate and assess everything in my life,” she said. “It gave me a lot of time, I guess, to reflect on other things such as my brother’s death.” 

She tried to go back to the way things were, but it was clear something changed. Along with family illnesses, Graves found her own mental and physical health deteriorating. 

“I didn’t realize what I was doing. I was just going, going, going, not processing things,” she said. “Keeping busy, but realizing how much the exposure to all this hurt and tragedy was taking on my mental health.”

“My body just basically said no, so I had to come to terms with it. Advocacy had become unhealthy for me.”

Click to play video: 'With Canada’s opioid crisis, lives can be saved with one of these'
With Canada’s opioid crisis, lives can be saved with one of these

In what was one of the hardest decisions of her life, Graves announced in a Facebook post that she would no longer be leading the charge with GPDOTS.

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Since then, she’s had several advocates from across Canada tell her they’ve had the same thoughts.

“We need a lot more awareness that the people that are supporting also need support,” Graves chuckled.

“Advocates are so busy trying to help everybody else, sometimes we forget to help ourselves.”

‘It’s a job you take home’

Matthew Bonn, president of the HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society, holds up one of the society’s T-shirts at a Naxolone training session in Halifax on Saturday, June 1, 2019. Graeme Benjamin/Global News

Matt Bonn knows firsthand the impact addiction can have. That’s because he battled substance abuse himself for a time.

But with support from the community, Bonn has been able to turn his struggle into a blessing. Through his advocacy, he’s been pivotal in helping bring the first government-approved overdose prevention site to Atlantic Canada.

“It will just normalize this conversation and reduce the stigma that comes along with substance use and reduce barriers for people trying to access services,” said Bonn, who’s president of HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society.

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The federal government has approved an exemption for an overdose prevention site to be operated out of the basement of an established methadone clinic in Halifax. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

But the overdose prevention site wasn’t approved overnight. It took Bonn and other members of HaliFIX months to convince the federal government to help fund the site, which provides substance users with health-care professionals, peer support and life-saving medications such as naloxone in case of an overdose.

“You’re trying to make a systematic-level change that sometimes people don’t want,” said Bonn. “And sometimes when you’re advocating, the goal may not be realistic. It’s really kind of trying to achieve something that’s sustainable and fits into the needs of the population you’re trying to serve.”

Click to play video: 'Atlantic Canada’s first overdose prevention site given exemption by federal government'
Atlantic Canada’s first overdose prevention site given exemption by federal government

Bonn says to combat advocacy burnout, the first step is starting a conversation.

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“The burnout is real,” said Bonn. “I feel it a little bit already. You get really happy, excited, then you get really sad and frustrated and angry. It becomes an emotional burnout as well as a physical one.”

“It’s a job that you take home with you. But what burns you out keeps you going.”

‘Advocates get taken advantage of’

When Patricia Murray’s son took his own life, she didn’t know where to turn.

Her son, Roan Crothers Moore, lived with a mental illness from as early as age 10. It’s something the Vancouver woman coped with then, and something she still is coming to terms with today.

Roan Crothers Moore died by suicide at the age of 21.
Roan Crothers Moore died by suicide at the age of 21. Submitted

Murray tried counselling, but says it only worked to a certain extent.

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“When you lose a loved one like that, there is no answer out there,” she said. “There was nothing wrong with the counselling, it’s just really something that can’t be achieved.”

“There is no therapy, there is no drug, there is no cure. You just have to be in the trenches.”

READ MORE: ‘One size doesn’t fit all’: Canadian campuses desperately need better mental health services

She also turned to advocacy as a way to help cope with her grief. Up until a few weeks ago, she was a board member with Pathways Serious Mental Illness Society, which taught her how to understand her son’s mental illness.

But Murray says her personal connection to subject matter became too much to bear and she decided to resign.

“I just couldn’t keep doing it. My son died a year after I joined, but I continued on the board. I’m just burned out,” she said.  “I got very disillusioned and discouraged, not with the people we working with, but just that we weren’t going to be making any change.”

Murray says it’s important for fellow advocates to be self-aware and stand up for themselves.

“Advocates get taken advantage of, good-hearted people that just want to do good, but I think there are people that are just trying to make those people feel busy and spin their wheels.”

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“We have to look at, where are we in this bigger picture? How can we change a situation that’s unacceptable?”

But all three agree that coping with advocacy burnout will take more than just a conversation. They say if your advocacy is burning you out, it’s OK to take a break for a little while.

“I’m just going to take a step back for a while and reflect on how I can truly make a difference,” Murray said.

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