Are You Suffering from Secondary Traumatic Stress?

juvenile-justice-system_woman-yellingWorking in the juvenile justice system, child welfare, or adolescent subsance abuse treatment can mean that you're exposed to all kinds of trauma. Every day, you might hear stories from clients of abuse, mistreatment, deprivation, and violence. That's what's known as "secondary traumatic stress." 
That stress is made worse when you have to decide whether clients you serve will be safe at home -- or if they're likely to hurt others. That's a lot to carry, even if nothing ever goes wrong.
The symptoms of secondary traumatic stress "are often indistinguishable from those found in individuals as a response to a traumatic event they experienced directly," according to Julie Collins, in her article, "Addressing Secondary Traumatic Stress: emerging approaches in child welfare," which appeared in the Mar/April 2009 issue of Children's Voice from the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). (Hat tip to Paul Savery.)
Just what are the symptoms? They include "fatigue or illness, cynicism, irritability, reduced productivity, feelings of hopelessness, anger, despair, sadness, feelings of re-experiencing the event, nightmares, anxiety, avoidance of people and activities, or persistent anger and sadness."

Collins quotes Charles Wilson, who directs the Chadwick Center for Children and Families in San Diego, who says that secondary traumatic stress is "one of the most pervasive and influential factors in child welfare, and yet few recognize its impact on the nature of the work, the ability of people to stay and prosper in the field, and the world view of the people who labor every day to serve this nation's children. " (The same could be said, I'm sure, of the juvenile justice and adolescent substance abuse treatment fields as well.)
Collins goes on to say that one of the biggest challenges for staff members suffering from the effects of secondary trauma is that they think they're alone.  On this point, she quotes Chris Siegfried, of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: "Traumatic stress can make staff ashamed about their strong reactions and uncomfortable about burdening colleagues or loved ones with their pain." 
Child welfare organizations are increasingly aware of the impact of secondary traumatic stress, Collins says, but most do no more than have crisis debriefings, refer employees to their EAP program, or have a short training on secondary stress.
However, she writes, "[T]he solutions need to be more systemic, with leadership and organizational support. 'It needs to be a multileveled response that addresses the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being of the staff,' says Michael Schultz, Director of Special Review and Staff Support at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families."
As you might expect from that quote, Schultz' department is a national leader in working to address secondary traumatic stress in its child welfare staff. Collins examines Schultz' program, and the work of the Resilience Alliance Project at the Children's Trauma Institute in New York. Preliminary findings and anecdotal evidence from staff show the approaches have a positive effect on the morale, effectiveness, efficiency, and attrition for both staff and supervisors who go through the same training. 
For more information and inspiration, check out Collins' full article
Talk back: Have you had experience with a program designed to systematically deal with secondary traumatic stress? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment. Have suggestions for your colleagues on handling secondary traumatic stress, or other resources we should know about? Drop me an email or leave a comment. 

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Photo: Evil Erin.

Updated: February 08 2018