Healing for the Healers: The Great Personal Toll of Social Work

As the CEO of Safe Horizon, an organization dedicated to empowering and healing victims of crime and abuse, I often visit our Child Advocacy Centers. These extraordinary child-friendly centers are staffed by a team of dedicated experts who work together to investigate, prosecute and treat child abuse. Over the years, I've heard many heartbreaking stories of children whose trust, and whose bodies, were violated by adults who should have cared for them. But one day, I heard a story that somehow was even worse -- a mother who abused her child in a particularly devastating way.

I have tried not to think about it over the years, but the details of that story have stayed with me. And, to be honest, this child's experience, and many others, has colored the way I see the world. There are times I think: The world is not as good a place as I once thought it was, and the average person may not be as benevolent as I had believed. Well, it turns out, I'm not alone in this experience.

Imagine hearing terrible stories of violence and abuse every time you go to work. For many at Safe Horizon, this is a daily reality. The advocates at our domestic violence hotline speak each and every day with survivors who fear for their lives, often having endured years of brutality. Our counselors work with families of murder victims supporting their recovery from the violent loss of a loved one. And at our Streetwork Project, our staff work with homeless youth who face the harsh realities of New York City's streets, often with agonizing results.

Work like this can take an incredible toll, and experiences like mine are, sadly, far from uncommon. Over the past 20 years, we've come to understand that those who work with people who have survived trauma -- crime victims, war veterans and survivors of natural disasters, for example -- suffer after-effects that mirror those of their clients. There is a name for this response: vicarious trauma.

According to the American Counseling Association [PDF]:

Repeated exposure to clients' traumatic material could cause a shift in the way that trauma counselors perceive themselves, others and the world. These shifts can have devastating effects on their personal and professional lives.

How we heal the healers depends on the type of trauma they are experiencing. For some, the effects of hearing a story of abuse for the first time may cause immediate reactions similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with symptoms like intrusive thoughts, inability to sleep, and anxiety.

For others, the cumulative effect of hearing stories of human suffering over months or years of doing this work can seep into one's personal and professional life. The symptoms may include depression, cynicism and hopelessness to hyper-vigilance or exhaustion.

It's important for all of us providing social services to have supports in place to help reduce the effects of vicarious trauma on the people who are on the front lines of human suffering. It's not only the humane thing to do, but it ensures we can continue to serve the public humanely.

So how can we help those who work daily to help others?

At Safe Horizon, we partner with an outside organization to provide crisis debriefing to staff after a serious incident, like the death of a client at the hands of her abuser. Our supervisors are trained to lead sessions with staff members that explore their reactions to the work, and that result in personalized self-care plans. We provide training on vicarious trauma throughout the organization, while incorporating remedies that range from peer support to guided meditation.

We often think of firefighters and police officers as the first responders to crises and disasters. What we may forget is that social workers are first responders, too. Firefighters and police officers wear protective equipment while doing their work; by addressing vicarious trauma, we help protect our social workers as they do theirs.

Please join me in marking World Social Work Day by letting social workers know that you appreciate everything they do to strengthen our communities, knowing that they often pay a real price for doing so.

Help us show recognition for this vital work. Sign our online "thank you" card for social workers today.