Psychiatry, Burnout and Dictatorship, Pt.2

Here is Pt.1, if you’ve arrived at this one first.

In the first post on this topic, I wrote about my reading on the Burnout Cycle and Compassion Fatigue, and how I saw a link between this combination and the consequences of dictatorship. So now I’ll explain the details of the burnout cycle and show how they can be observed to an extent in some previous dictatorships.

The term “burnout” describes a form of exhaustion caused by high stress levels, most commonly from workplace stress. The cycle of burnout has 12 phases, which are categorised as mild, moderate or severe .

Mild phase; Begins with a compulsion to prove themselves, leading to harder work and neglecting their own needs. This happens to many professionals and people with high ambitions, so is not very dysfunctional until it leads to the higher stages.

Moderate; This is where it starts to become a problem. The person is aware of problems but displaces them as they cannot see the sources, they will instead blame others. Alternately, they can deny problems exist, and become cynical and aggressive towards others. They can believe their only measure of self-worth is their job. Their behavior might also begin to change and they will develop physical stress symptoms.

Severe; This is where serious problems are found. The person will withdraw from people and social contact. This can lead to depression and a kind of emptiness. The most serious (at least for the people they are in charge of) is depersonalisation.  If they reach the stage of chronic depersonalisation, they lose contact with themselves, time, and some aspects of reality, such as the importance and reach of decisions they make. This can obviously lead to very bad decision-making and impaired judgement on a leader’s part.

The first person to be analysed is Robert Mugabe,  the President of Zimbabwe. For him, the mildest phases of the burnout cycle can be seen from when he was imprisoned in 1964. During the 11 years he was in prison, he earned 3 different degrees, and took control of a political party (the ZANU). This was followed by forming his own militant party after he was released. His changes of values can be seen when he hired and repeatedly promoted his rival, only to fire him and cause infighting, then to re-hire him.

Problems with blame and conflict could also be seen from his belief that tribes were plotting against him, and his military attacking them because of it. Further evidence is his blaming of drought and sanctions for food shortages despite his decisions to reserve land mainly for white farmers (with just 1% of the population owning 70% of farmable land) , and his raiding of “illegal shelters” which were in fact groups of homeless people that his authorities had previously moved to the shelters.

His later terms in office show him becoming more paranoid, aggressive, and hostile: for example, he has banned some films believing they are CIA propaganda, and has been hostile to Western media, believing they are lying about his actions.

While it is difficult to see and/or predict the more severe stages, as depression and internal emptiness are of course subjective, it could be theorised that depersonalisation led him to order the killing (and in some cases torture) of his enemies or civilians. At that stage he would have lost sight of the importance of any individual person’s life, and probably of the value of any individual person.

The second case study, which is similar in many ways, is of Colonel Gaddafi. His compulsive drive for achievement phases was obvious in his military training- he began planning how to overthrow the government while in military college and successfully managed it a few years later, taking charge of the country at age 27 (for context, that is just over half the age of the average British prime minister.)

Increasing hostility can be seen in his new rules on politics- even talking about politics was punishable by imprisonment, with any form of dissent leading to death. Cynicism is also shown in the level of censoring- Libya is one of the most censored countries in the world. In a similar way as Mugabe, Gaddafi also shows changes in behaviour by his repeated mergers and separations from countries (although that could just be part of politics, but I don’t know enough about politics to back up that point) His reportedly incoherent and eccentric statements, which often end with him contradicting himself, could also support that.

Perhaps the biggest sign of entering the more severe stages is his reaction to his son being arrested. As he was arrested by police in Geneva, Gaddafi spoke at the UN about wanting to “wipe Switzerland off the map” in retribution.

Now this is where compassion fatigue enters the equation (in a more general sense, not just to those two people). Compassion fatigue is a stress reaction faced by people who counsel or assist people in dangerous or traumatic situations. The role of leader of a country, especially countries which are in poverty, or have faced a war or disaster, fits both of those criteria. CF would also have a stronger effect on a leader than on any indivudal nurse, doctor or NGO worker person, as the leader is in the public spotlight with little room for error. A person with CF becomes overloaded by the scale of suffering they see, especially if they cannot prevent it. As a result they shut down, becoming cynical and failing to noticing people who are suffering,  This would explain why leaders can end up not discouraging (or even actively encouraging) things that seem incomprehensible to the rest of us, such as civil wars and extreme punishments.

The thing is, as it is both a gradual and an insight-reducing problem, it is very difficult to tell the person the problems they will face. Many also end up very isolated, which makes them even less able to identify any problems. Therefore, it is quite difficult to think of ways of stopping it from happening.

One suggestion could be to legislate a support team around them to stop problems before they arise, while another, more extreme solution would be to somehow stop the country from being under the rule of one person.

Please comment if you have any other solutions, extensions of the theory, or criticisms of the theory/ how I explained things.

2 thoughts on “Psychiatry, Burnout and Dictatorship, Pt.2

  1. I believe that one of the ideas of the United Nations was that all countries could work together and be answerable to a higher political authority. I find the idea of such nations (Zimbabwe, Libya, et al) being excluded from the UN a daft idea. I believe that this way of working can help with political openness and reducing the opportunities for despots and dictators.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.