Avoiding secondary trauma
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Avoiding secondary trauma

Social workers need to de-stress, too, says YU professor

When social work professionals engage fully with their clients, inevitably they take on some of their burdens.

“Imagine each of your clients as a backpack,” Rozetta Wilmore-Schaeffer recently told 23 staff members at Jewish Family Services in Teaneck. As that backpack fills – containing the work one does with clients, as well as their own “stuff” – “it can get pretty heavy,” she said.

Speaking with the JFS staff recently about the concept of vicarious traumatization, Schaeffer said professionals can sometimes become overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff” they are asked to carry.

The key to remaining effective, she told them, is to be able to walk away from the work each day with a sense of “self-efficacy and self-esteem.” And to do that, professionals need to identify the activities that “‘feed us,’ and schedule time to do these things.”

Schaeffer, an associate professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University, said that in these demanding and stressful economic times, “We as practitioners are dealing with the same social and economic phenomena. The major issue is to keep [our work] separate from our own personal experience. To the degree we can do this, we can be more helpful to the client.”

With vicarious experiences, particularly when dealing with people in traumatic situations – whether they’re facing the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job – there is a “parallel process for the helper” in dealing with the experience, she said.

“It starts with the issue of safety,” she said, explaining that if someone has had a traumatic experience, one of the important issues is helping them feel safe. “A parallel issue for helpers is how secure they feel in their [own] positions. If an agency is in flux or has money problems, their ability to help the client is compromised.”

In speaking with social workers and other helping professionals – something she does often – “I help them recognize and identify [the] issues…and begin to think about how to build one’s self a personal and professional network that feeds you and will allow you to both distance and heal,” she said.

This kind of approach is helpful not only in a clinical setting, but when the social worker is making decisions on the client’s behalf.

“The social worker has to be able to make a connection with that person on a deep level – even if just making a decision about concrete services – and to empathically understand” that person, she said. “The process of making that connection evokes vicarious traumatization.”

Schaeffer noted that with friends and family, we do not have to distance ourselves in the same way, since – unlike social workers who are “on the outside looking in” – we are part of the situation.

“The important thing is to be able to listen and still help them make the decision that is best for them, even if you are a part of it,” she said. “It’s a major challenge.”

Schaeffer said it is vitally important for professionals to have ongoing training and “pep talks. It’s one of those things where repetition is very important,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder that – if they’re suddenly upset about something they’ve done many times before – maybe they should go for a cup of coffee to relax, or maybe they should rearrange their schedule for the following week.”

“If you’re in the helping professions, or if you’re in a situation where you’re the helper, it is important that you understand you need to build into that experience a way of taking care of yourself,” she said.

Lisa Fedder, JFS executive director, said the agency periodically brings in speakers to enhance the experience of social work professionals, who deal with traumatized individuals on a regular basis.

“Care managers day in and day out hear these stories,” she said, “Not the kind of trauma like living through 9/11 or Katrina, but the traumatization of losing a job or becoming impoverished. We’re trained to set boundaries, but [it requires] ongoing reminders.”

Fedder said the economic downturn has resulted in the agency getting “calls of desperation.” At the same time, “Our resources are getting slimmer. It’s frustrating and more and more difficult.”

“Our own situation becomes stressed,” she said. “We work harder, but dollars are so tight.” And while people are doing more with less, “at a certain point, we can’t.”

Fedder said the agency’s caseload is up in every area, from counseling to vocational services to kosher meals on wheels. Despite this, she said, “We haven’t increased the staff.”

People working in high-stress, intense environments will “pick up on this and bring it home,” she said, adding that often, one does not realize it.

One staff member told her that all her clients were angry, she said, noting that she found it odd that all the clients would feel that way. In fact, she said, it was the clinician who was angry.

“You have to try to keep yourself grounded when there’s a lot of stress, chaos, and trauma around you,” she said. “Day after day, people are requesting help. But you can only do such much.”

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