Secondary Traumatic Stress

Ok, so most of us haven’t used air-travel in a while.  But we all know the in-flight drill before take-off.  The flight attendant goes over safety procedures in the case of an emergency.  Now, the instinct of a parent or caregiver is to ensure the safety and well-being of their child before themselves, if the unthinkable were to happen.  However, do you recall the instructions regarding the oxygen masks?  Here’s the announcement verbatim: “Please pull the mask over your nose and mouth.  If you are traveling with a child, please attend to yourself first, then the child.”  Why?  Because it is impossible to take proper care of someone else, if you, yourself are in distress.  

Each year there are more than 10 million children in the United States who endure abuse, neglect, violence and natural disasters along with a host of other adverse events. While professionals in social services, advocacy, mental health and law enforcement who are responsible or in some way involved in the care of these children, there are consequences to their commendable but excruciating work.  Having a front row seat to the abhorrent behavior of pedophiles and abusers can have serious emotional and psychological impacts on the involved adults. This can cause indirect trauma exposure otherwise referred to as secondary traumatic stress.  In simple terms, this is stress occurring when these essential workers receive firsthand information about the traumatic cases they handle for hours, days and months at time.  

The collective disgust after the arrest of 29-year old Austin Stevens who was arrested for raping and murdering his 10 -month old daughter was palpable.  Let’s be honest, with a 24-hour news cycle spitting out information every minute through cable news, smartphones and social media, the effect this case has on most people diminishes all too quickly.  But just because an arrest was made does not mean justice has been served.  In fact, it is the very beginning of a long, tedious and draining process for the prosecutors, investigators, advocates, judges and jury.   

An essential component of ensuring that these children receive the best care is to protect the health of the helpers. Ensuring their own oxygen masks are secured before attempting to secure the child’s.  

The symptoms of secondary traumatic stress can mimic those of PTSD. The most important knowledge you can arm yourself with is the ability to recognize the warning signs. Those affected by secondary traumatic stress may notice the following: hypervigilance, hopelessness, sleeplessness, guilt, fear, anger and chronic exhaustion among others. This condition and these symptoms are widely recognized as common occupational hazards for professionals working with traumatized children. Anyone who is in this line of work is at risk.  Your emotional strength and psychological fortitude can not protect you from being human.  

As my advocacy work has evolved, I realize it is equally important to train other advocates on self-care when handling these repulsive cases. There are a variety of ways to assess and identify secondary traumatic stress and believe me when I say this is a condition you need to take seriously. The most common means of identification are informal self-assessments and training for workers. The self-assessments can be checklists for workers to use to identify any symptoms they may be having. Any organization that is working with traumatized children should have assessments in place and intervention options for staff.  These include therapy, supervisor check-ins and caseload adjustments. 

In addition, to assessment we need to focus on prevention. We choose this work because it is our calling.  I will tell you unequivocally, a calling doesn’t excuse you from directly feeling the same horrors these children were subjected to as a part of their everyday life.  But there are ways to allow yourself outlets and contain the effect of this trauma to prevent extraordinary stress and burnout. Click on this link to learn about techniques I use regularly: Tips on Self-Care During Difficult Case Loads.

Secondary traumatic stress is REAL.  You are a superhero for helping these vulnerable children, but you don’t have the superpowers to make legitimate feelings of depression and anxiety disappear.  No one can do that.  Find a good work-life balance, not a bare- minimum balance but a good balance. Breathe.  Make sure you’re getting that oxygen and support every day through a solid support system.  We can’t help our children if we aren’t helping ourselves.