Secondary Trauma (Holly McDonald M Ed., MSW, RSW)

At first I thought writing an article on Secondary Trauma (ST) would be limited to social workers and first responders like police, firefighters, ambulance and hospital attendants. However, I realized many people are vulnerable to experiencing ST, which is also known as Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma and Burn-out. Symptoms include: sleeplessness, constant worry, a sense of doom, negativity, inability to focus, self-doubt, confusion. It occurs as a result of helping or wanting to help a suffering person. This cuts a wide swath and could apply to social workers and first responders, but also to politicians, bar tenders, wait staff, your favourite barista, hairdressers and many more.

ST is the accumulative effect of working with survivors of traumatic events and its negative effects can creep up on you. One minute you are functioning well and the other you are feeling helpless and lost. Another time you are driving to work on a sunny day then suddenly a sense of doom comes over you that something terrible is going to happen to you or a loved one. A sense of helplessness and imminent danger is most pronounced in trauma workers but can also occur with anyone hearing repeated stories of abuse. As a probation and parole officer I not only read victim impact statements but also see evidence of harm and abuse when my clients come to see me. It can be difficult to see men and women who have sores on their arms from using needles to inject drugs or to see bruises on sex workers’ faces after being assaulted. Most difficult is when you have been meeting with someone for two years on a regular basis and they die from complications due to their drug use. Trauma looms large with many clients who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system. Past trauma takes many forms including generational abuse in Aboriginal communities stemming from mistreatment endured at Residential schools.
The good news is that ST does not have to take its toll. It is very important to notice and then monitor when you are feeling out of sorts. It is also very important to listen to colleagues and loved ones when they tell you something is different about you, as they know and care about you. Self-care is vital in taking care of one’s mental health and well-being. The most important form of self-care is connecting with others; studies have shown people who are prayed for after heart surgery or those who attend support groups during cancer treatment have the best outcomes. Talking to your supervisor, co-worker, or loved one about how you are feeling is a huge stress-buster. Conversely, taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with someone who needs to talk is equally important as long as your empathy tank is not drained.

Other good ways to avoid or minimize ST is to exercise, have proper nutrition, and engage in interests and hobbies outside of work. Do whatever makes your soul sing and time fly by. Yoga, tai chi, meditation, journaling and being in nature all help to quiet one’s mind enough for internal guidance and knowledge to come through. Listen to your body. If you experience symptoms of ST as mentioned above, or fatigue, withdrawing from others, and/or an increase in addictive behaviour, reach out as soon as possible. Speaking with friends, colleagues and professionals helps to off-set and minimize the effects of ST. Socrates’ sage advice of, “A life unexamined is a life not worth living” is extremely important. Self-awareness and conscious living allows one’s mental health to stay at the forefront. Positive self-talk and acknowledgment of the important and meaningful work we do is key.


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