How crisis counselors stay happy

Story highlights

  • Suicide prevention counselors say self-care is part of the job description
  • Because they can't bring work home, they turn to co-workers to deal with tough days
  • Establishing boundaries between work and rest of life is crucial to well-being

(CNN)What do we really know about the lives of social workers and crisis counselors, the people who answer suicide hotlines or counsel those who have lost loved ones?

Contrary to what you might expect, many crisis workers -- the ones who enjoy their jobs, at least -- tell CNN they are happy people. Because the work is rooted in hope and resilience, it tends to attract people with an optimistic view of humanity and a larger-than-average capacity for empathy.
    While most crisis workers say they're drawn to the field to help others, many say they get plenty out of it, too. A fair share get into the work after losing someone to suicide, illness or natural causes and emerging from the abyss with an altruistic bend. No one gets in it for the money, but constant listening and sharing has its own therapeutic benefits, they say.
      What can they teach the rest of us about work-life balance? Above all, you have to take care of yourself before you can help others. Self-care is not just something hotline coordinator Erin Jones just preaches to clients and co-workers. "It's part of my job description," she said.
      Though they have bad days like everyone else, their coping mechanisms are tried and tested. Here's some of their advice for staying positive.

      1. Lean on support groups

        Janet Schnell of Jasper, Indiana, was looking for answers after her brother Kent died in 1995 at 30. Why didn't she notice? Why didn't she do anything to stop it?
        Part of her search meant getting to the root of her brother's unhappiness. Another led her to a career in social work so she could help others in similar situations. The two went hand in hand, she said.
        "I had to be able to talk about my brother's death before I could lead others."
        Twenty years later, Schnell is a social worker with Survivors of Suicide Dubois County, which serves southern Indiana. A typical day lasts from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., during which she could be taking phone calls or leading a support group for suicide loss survivors. Or, she might be assisting law enforcement at the scene of a suspected suicide, helping with relatives and friends.
        How does she make it through the tough days? By doing the same thing she encourages in others: rely on a support group. When she needs to talk through hard calls or days, she turns to her "work family," which includes members of a peer team.
        "The work family understands the stressors you have," she said. "As a social worker, you can't share these experiences with your family or friends, but with your work family you can."

        2. Establish boundaries

        Don't take your work home with you, be it paperwork or residual emotions experienced on the job.
        Jones thinks of it as taking off a cape and leaving it on a hook at the door of the Birmingham, Alabama, crisis center where she works. Like Schnell, she became a counselor after witnessing her family grieve the death of her uncle.
        But, "I can't be a counselor all the time," she said. It's a notion sh