Focus Area 8: Mental Health Basics
6. Self-care for the Youth Worker

Right at the very start of your certificate course, in Focus Area 1: The Field of Youth Work, you studied a section called Self-Care is Key to Sustaining Your Passion. You were encouraged to create and customize your very own self-care plan, personalized to fit your preferences and interests.

Ideally, your plan has elements that work for you to address those times when you start to feel stress building up. You have outlets for rejuvenating yourself and reducing those alarm bells.

Hopefully, you also have specific strategies in place for emergency situations. At the very least, you need to have some sort of maintenance routine, some planned exercises, or activities that you just go to on a regular basis because they make you feel good overall.

If you haven’t formally started to map out your customized self-care plan just yet, this is a friendly reminder to make time (now!). Even if you just start small, just start.

Then, in each of the subsequent focus area modules, we included a Shout-out to self-care, meant to give you pause in your study and take a moment to try out some different approaches and practice a little self-care exercise.

Now, in this last module, we’re returning to the topic for a big finish with a final section on Self-Care for the Youth Worker.

Hopefully, the message is clear: from start to finish, in every aspect of your day-to-day work with youth, you really do need to take care of YOU.

You read this in Focus Area 1: The Field of Youth Work, and it bears repeating here - youth workers are not invincible. You live your own life concurrently with supporting young people.

Your value to a young person is directly related to how well
care for yourself outside of that relationship.

Spending time with young people you care about and want to help certainly has its rewards. In all honesty, it can also be stressful and draining on any given day, but especially when a youth has a mental health issue.

Working with young people that have experienced trauma puts you at risk for secondary trauma, sometimes called “compassion fatigue” or “vicarious trauma.”

As a youth worker, you may feel powerless or inadequate when faced with such challenges. This is when it becomes especially important to remember the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting someone else. You do no one any good if you are suffocating under the weight of someone else’s pain.

It can be harmful to you as a youth worker, and also to the youth, if you feel it is your job to “fix it” somehow or try to hold all the information alone. This is why it’s important, within limits of confidentiality or privacy, to share some of the load.

When engaging with anyone in a helping role, knowing where your support will come from, and how you will refuel is crucial to prevent compassion-fatigue and burn-out.

When to ask for support will differ for each youth worker. It depends on your individual stories, triggers, and biases. Know those tender places in your life where you may need to reach out for support. This becomes especially true when the youth you are working with is experiencing something that you have experienced in your own life.

And your own mental health, as well as your physical well-being, depend on the self-care strategies you choose.

There are a number of healthy practices and techniques that you can draw on. Some of the more common practices include:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Deep-breathing exercises
  • Social activity
  • Quality “me time”
  • Physical exercise
  • Walking in nature
  • Getting a massage

What’s best is whatever works best for you. It won’t help at all if your youth work colleagues say “Try yoga – it works for me!” but the very thought of being in a roomful of people doing yoga actually stresses you out. Yoga would be a non-starter for your self-care plan.

Shout-out to self-care: SIGNAL YOURSELF

A novel approach to customizing your own best self-care strategies is to first think about the signals you notice that tell you it’s time to step back and give yourself a little extra TLC.

As an example of a signal, let’s say you start to notice that you’re being short with others, not as patient as you usually are. You recall that this seems to happen when you’ve been putting in too many hours.

Or maybe you’re waking up feeling tired already and you know that usually seems to happen when you’re worrying too much about work. Or you feel like you just want to pull away from people and you know from experience that this is a signal you get when feel too many demands on your time.

No matter the sort of signal, the key is to learn to recognize the source. In these quick examples, the sources were over-work, excessive worry, and over-commitment.

Being alert to your signals and aware of the typical triggers, you can customize your self-care strategies in a way to directly address the source while achieving the quality you value about yourself. Here’s an example:

Signal: I’m noticing I’m not as patient as I like to be. I’m starting to cut people off in conversation or give just really short answers to them.

Source: I know I lose patience when I’m putting in too many hours.

My best self: I really value being a patient person.

Strategies: What are the options I have for cutting back on my hours for a bit?

Action plan: I’ll talk with my supervisor to see what would work best, and I’ll give myself an extra 15 minutes a day this week to do something fun outside of work. Put your action on your calendar and keep those appointments with yourself!

The work you do with youth is so important. Through you, so many young people will realize a better future for themselves. With your help, the world will become a better place for all of us. We simply can’t afford to lose you to burnout!

Please take good care of yourself. Not everyone can do what you do so our young people truly do need you. And we care about you. We wish you all the best success!

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