This guidebook is written for those individuals who have chosen to dedicate a time in their life to work with abused women, children, and their abusers. It attempts to recognize the unique experience of anti-violence workers in Canada and to promote individual, professional, and organizational solutions to support them. Vicarious trauma is one outcome of this work. The effects of vicarious trauma are cumulative and build upon memories obtained through listening to the stories of one inhumane act of cruelty after another. This creates a permanent, subtle or marked change in the personal, political, spiritual and professional outlook of the counsellor or advocate. Vicarious trauma has a life-changing effect on individuals, ultimately affecting their view of the world and their relationships and connections to families, friends, and community. Understanding and working with the trauma is both an individual and organizational challenge.
Providing a definition of vicarious trauma is the first step in identifying and accepting the deep changes that occur in counsellors and advocates as a result of working with abused women and children. Definitions that describe the profound effect on therapists resulting from exposure to the trauma experiences of their clients are offered by those in the vanguard of this emerging field of study.
Laurie Anne Pearlman, Karen W. Saakvitne, Paula S. MacIan and the rest of the team from the Traumatic Stress Institute Center for Adult & Adolescent Psychotherapy, Charles Figley, and others provide valuable insight into vicarious trauma and lay a foundation for the information offered in this guidebook.
Compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization, secondary traumatization, secondary stress disorder, insidious trauma, and vicarious trauma are all terms that are used in an attempt to label and define what happens, why it happens, and how to live healthily with the experiences.
These experts continue to collect evidence about the importance of recognizing the effects of vicarious trauma, of developing healthy personal solutions, and of promoting organizational responses to preserve the strength of counsellors and advocates.
In this guidebook, the term “vicarious trauma” will be used. Feedback from groups and individuals during this project, as well as consideration of the use of terms available in the literature, determined that “vicarious trauma” comes closest to identifying the specific experiences of anti-violence workers.
“Compassion fatigue” is another term often applied to this field; however, it is increasingly used to describe exhaustion and desensitization to violent and traumatic events portrayed, in particular, by the media.
To date, the work on vicarious trauma has been principally based on the experiences of trauma workers who are part of the mainstream service network, including emergency care personnel such as police, firefighters, and emergency nurses. This work is now being extended to include the unique experiences of those working with victims of sexual assault, childhood abuse, and with abused women and their children. Pearlman and MacIan (1995) and Saakvitne and Pearlman (1996), for example, recognize the particular effect and complexities for the therapist working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Anti-violence workers are not always recognized and rewarded by society for their contributions in enhancing the lives of individuals and in creating new and effective social and community services.
As such, a full public or academic understanding of the necessity and importance of the work, and the difficult environment in which the work takes place, is still developing. Shelters, second-stage housing, sexual assault centres and advocacy centres have formed unique services based on a strong commitment to feminist values and social justice. All providers of a service, from administration to counsellors, are affected to some degree by vicarious trauma. For the purposes of this guidebook, anti-violence workers include all staff, both counselling and administrative, volunteers, and board of directors.
While the material in this guidebook focuses on vicarious trauma, it briefly covers other issues and disciplines that are relevant and beneficial to the topic. The vast body of material on stress and burnout, for example, provides resources for identifying individual and organizational stressors. The resources on stress and burnout offer useful remedies and solutions applicable to vicarious trauma, particularly those that recognize the stress of daily living and work. It is, however, consistently the case that the material does not identify or provide solutions specifically regarding the pervasive effect of the exposure of anti-violence workers to traumatic material.
There are many resources on women and self-esteem, self-care, and relaxation that support the need for personal care and nurturing and encourage a search of self that promotes self-determination.
Resources by Jennifer Louden and N. Branden provide excellent suggestions that can be incorporated in a good self-care plan. Self-care is only one part of the equation in responding effectively to vicarious trauma. In addition to such individual solutions, there are also organizational approaches to ensuring that workers in this field are supported in healthy work lives.
There is a wealth of resources on leadership that are useful and relevant to anti-violence work. Particularly helpful are those that focus on self-reflection, integrity, and finding a healthy balance among work, home, and community.
Stephen Covey and Max Depree offer good suggestions that support positive renewal and self-development.
To respond to the cumulative effects, ongoing care, and organizational practices are needed. Providing immediate support following a traumatic incident is an essential response to those immediately and secondarily affected. Critical incident stress debriefing provides such support and employs trained debriefers following exposure to an event that is particularly horrifying or stressful. Critical incident stress debriefing and defusing is therefore included as one of several elements of organizational practice needed to respond to vicarious trauma.
When all of these resources are collected and blended with the existing material on vicarious trauma, it is clear that the solutions needed for anti-violence workers to remain healthy and vibrant are comprehensive. They touch every aspect of organizational structures, patterns and policies, as well as personal, professional, and spiritual beliefs and activities. All practitioners who are exposed to the trauma inflicted on others, whether by choice, accident, disaster, or political intervention, may benefit from the solutions proposed in this guidebook. The suggestions outlined in the section on organizational responses provide low-cost and no-cost solutions that demonstrate an understanding of and commitment to the needs of staff working in anti-violence agencies.
Vicarious trauma is a clear and present danger to anti-violence workers and an occupational hazard of the profession. The women change us forever. To honour their courage, we must honour ourselves and commit to self-preservation, self-renewal, and self-care.