Working with Survivors of Trauma

Aid workers experience both positive gains and potential risks when working with trauma survivors. To hear horrific stories and see the results of torture, famine, disease and war, changes a person both positively and negatively. Few who enter such a career are fully prepared to directly confront the realities of death, hate, violence, and evil within our world.

Compassion Satisfaction

Compassion Satisfaction is the sense of satisfaction that aid workers experience through their work with individuals who have faced hardship and harrowing life experiences and, in many cases, who have survived trauma.

Aid work can bring a great sense of purpose, meaning and personal growth into the lives of the aid worker.

Compassion Satisfaction is especially high amongst individuals who have a good balance between their work and their free time, and who make use of professional and social resources (peer support, psychological assistance), when necessary.

Secondary Trauma or "Compassion Fatigue"

Secondary Traumatization or Compassion Fatigue refers to the adverse effects that can arise when aid workers do not ensure their own well-being, care or treatment, whilst working with traumatized individuals.

In fact, the individual traumatized is not the only one affected. Those who care for the traumatized individual are also invariably affected. This may include the individual's family members and friends, those providing professional help, or anyone else who engages empathically with the trauma survivor.

It's important to remember that exposure to traumatized people is highly stressful and has significant negative effects on mental health. Individuals who learn of a traumatic event through the person who has been traumatized may develop reactive behaviors and emotions.

Secondary Traumatization includes symptoms that trauma survivors themselves experience.

Symptoms of Secondary Traumatization

Secondary Traumatization is not a reflection of inadequacy but, rather, an "occupational hazard".

It is, therefore, essential for staff to take measures to ensure their own health and well-being - including regular breaks, vacations, exercise, and a healthy diet. It is, likewise, essential that aid workers not adapt an entire career in deep field locations but, rather, that they move back and forth between remote field locations or conflict regions, and capital cities. This responsibility is not the sole burden of aid workers themselves but also of aid-working employers.

Nonetheless, it is essential to understand your role as an aid worker.
Self-sacrificing, “dedicated” staff who are never concerned with their own needs are not as much "praiseworthy" as they are potentially harmful to themselves and to those around them.
If personal needs for rest and well-being, family and friends are not met, there is an increased risk of losing one's social support networks. Such isolation and detachment can result in a hardened personality which, in turn, has adverse effects on both colleagues and beneficiaries.

Vicarious Traumatization

Vicarious Traumatization refers to the transformative changes caused by Secondary Traumatization.

Vicarious Trauma negatively impacts the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, interpersonal and physical health of professional caregivers.

Effects of Vicarious Trauma

Compassion Fatigue / Secondary Traumatization / Vicarious Traumatization / Secondary Traumatic Stress is not recognized by current psychiatric standards as a clinical disorder. Awareness and understanding of the concept, however, allows for prevention, amelioration and transformation of the effects that aid workers may face.

Self-care strategies are critical to your personal well-being and to effective development in your personal and professional lives:

      • balance work, play and rest
      • ensure self-identity encompasses more than just your role as an aid worker (e.g. also as a friend, parent, child, partner, sibling)
      • engage in creative pursuits (e.g. playing music, dance, art, poetry, gardening)
      • enjoy nature
      • practice meditation, yoga
      • find supportive forums/professional groups or environments in which the rewards and risks of being an aid worker can be openly discussed
      • seek professional support (e.g. psychotherapeutic assistance)

Remember: Secondary Traumatization is pervasive and has negative effects. Take action now (i.e. implement appropriate self-care strategies or seek professional support) to diminish its effects on your life and well-being.