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Mental Health

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Emotions of a Front Line Worker

Hannah Gibson, MBChB

Reprinted from the "Responding to Feelings" issue of Visions Journal, 2021, 16 (4), pp. 22-23

Stock photo

Front line, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: “A role or position of immediate involvement with crises, social problems, etc.”1

Front line, according to Hannah: Guilt, its heaviness weighing down on me. My stomach knotting in fear. Celebrations of pure, unadulterated joy. Depression that grips and pulls me down; feeling apathy towards those I serve. Fleeting moments of hope marred by frustration. Compassion; gut-wrenching empathy.

Some days as an outreach worker, as I seek out people experiencing homelessness in Kelowna, one overriding emotion might drown out all others. Other days, the ebb and flow of feelings swells and dissipates so that, by the time my shift is over, I feel balanced, or empty.

Every time I approach someone lying on the ground, I reach for a pocket mask and make sure I’ve got at least two naloxone kits with me. Oh good, they’re just having a nap. My stomach unfurls from the clench of apprehension. No overdose today. Maybe tomorrow. I do what I can with the resources I have: food, harm reduction, connecting people on the streets with health services or offering them housing application forms. Then I have to walk away, which is usually the hardest bit.

Sometimes, I’ve done something tangible to help; I’ve connected people to mental health services, given out clean needles or a new pair of socks. Sometimes, though, I don’t have what they need, like unlimited access to affordable housing units or detox beds, or a promise that they won’t be assaulted or robbed if they go to a shelter. I don’t always have a poncho or a tarp on me when it’s pouring rain and the cardboard they’re using is sodden.

Guilt is the plague that dogs the front line worker. When I walk away and get into my truck, with its heated seats and fans bringing warmth to my fingers and toes, the guilt can become unbearable. The feeling rarely follows me home after shift, though, for one crucial reason: my outreach partner.

When I’m looking melancholy, when I bemoan the unfairness of the system and vent my frustrations, my partner is there to listen. They nod, empathize and remind me that it’s incredibly normal to feel the way I do. They tell me my feelings are valid, and then they show me the differences I’ve made on the street that day. They bring me comfort in our shared successes. When we get back to the office, we catch up with the wider team of Housing & Homelessness Services at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Kelowna.

Someone tells a joke whilst someone else brims with excitement because their client got into supportive housing. Not every day is like this; sometimes the mood is sombre. When a client overdoses or gets evicted into homelessness, there’s not much anyone can do to lighten the mood. The shared experience of that sorrow is what keeps us sane and willing enough to come back tomorrow.

The team is the reason I rarely take work home with me. By the time I’m back in the house, I don’t feel guilty that I have a bed to sleep in. With the guilt assuaged, there are still feelings left over. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed and stretched thin, my reserves of compassion running so low I’ve got nothing left to give to my friends or family. In times like this, I have to put my mental, physical and emotional health first. Even when I’m feeling good, self-care is incredibly important to make sure I keep feeling that way.

I’ve realized, with some trial and error, that self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, nor even a one-size-fits-me approach. A bubble bath with wine and a book can be a tonic on a stressful day, but other days it can be a flimsy Band-Aid on a much bigger wound. I recognize that wanting to hunker down on the sofa with a pizza, my dogs and my husband can be a great comfort, but it can also be an unhealthy habit when, really, I need to get up my heart rate and pour sweat on a bike ride. Then again, when I’m anxious and on edge, doing intense exercise is the worst thing—I feel wired for the rest of the night and can’t sleep.

I’m starting to see my physical, mental and emotional health as three plants that need tending. Sharing my experiences with others, eating well and doing gentle exercise are the rain and sunshine that keep all three going. To decide which form of self-care I need, I think about what plant I’m tending to; wine and pizza tend to a different state of well-being than bike rides and hikes. When my feelings take a negative turn, it’s time I came back and checked on those plants. Which one needs attention right now?

Fleetingly, there will be times when all three are in balance. These are the golden moments where I can give my fullest to work, my relationships and life. It’s taken a while for me to realize that I can be a better outreach worker, friend, wife and daughter when my plants are thriving. Tending to them has to be a priority, even when it feels selfish. I’m learning to recognize when I need self-care in the form of a bath, a ride, a meal with friends or a quiet night in. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it took plenty of therapy, lots of crying, words of wisdom from great friends and getting to the point where my plants were brown and wilting before I got it.

I think front line workers are excellent at tending to other peoples’ plants whilst our own shrivel, but we must remember: we can’t keep tending to others if we aren’t thriving. My team is what brings me back every day, but it’s recognizing my emotions, good and bad, and cultivating well-being that allows me to do my job well and serve the people who need it the most.

About the author

Hannah was born and raised in the UK, where she attended medical school. She moved to Canada in 2020. Hannah has always enjoyed volunteering and working in the areas of mental health, addictions and substance use. She is currently an outreach worker in Kelowna, offering support to the homeless community

  1. Barber, K. (1998). The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

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