Vicarious trauma, or secondary trauma, occurs when a mental health clinician begins to experience symptoms of trauma due to working with clients who’ve experienced trauma. Hearing about their trauma over and over, as well as its impact, begins to have an impact similar to experiencing the trauma itself.
This article briefly touches on the subject. Most important is a recognition by clinicians that this can occur, as well as efforts by clinicians to take steps to minimize the impact of secondary trauma. These steps often include having a supportive work environment, working to have balance in one’s life (i.e. not overwhelming oneself with high stress work), engaging in healthy and stress-reducing activities (i.e. regular exercise), and having a willingness to talk about own’s own difficulties when they arise.
Fortunately, there has been a significant increase in awareness of this issue over the last ten years. Many conferences and workshops are devoted to helping clinicians cope with the problems associated with working with lots of clients like this. However, awareness of the problem, and addressing it, are two different things. I’ve seen more than one co-worker in my time who would verbally acknowledge a certain issue, yet refuse to address it appropriately. Issues like setting boundaries and limits with clients, working to achieve balance, coping with a high number of trauma clients, etc. This is where supervisors need to step in, to not only make suggestions regarding self-care, but to insist on it, when necessary, for the good of the clinician, the organization, and the clinician’s clients.