Understanding Trauma & Vicarious Trauma

Gaining an understanding of trauma can help care and support workers assist their clients who may be experiencing mental health issues as a result of a traumatic event. Learning to recognise vicarious trauma can help care and support workers be aware of their own mental health and avoid burn out.

What is a traumatic event?

A traumatic event can include:

  • Individual traumas - accident, assault
  • Ongoing traumas - abuse, neglect, bullying, torture
  • Mass traumas - bushfire, storms, acts of terror
  • Vicarious trauma - seeing or hearing about a traumatic event
  • Memories of past traumas

Most people can recover without professional help, however some develop mental illness including:

  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depressive disorder

The risk of mental illness increases if the person is already prone to depression or anxiety.

Assess after traumatic event

Strong reaction of overwhelming fear, helplessness or horror;

Need for immediate help.

Delayed reaction or slowed recovery;

Assess regularly over the next few days or weeks.

After 2-4 weeks, some return to function should be observed;

If not professional help may be needed.

How you can assist after a traumatic event

Directly after the event:

  • Ensure your own safety
  • Introduce yourself and what you an help with
  • Use the person's name
  • Show care and understanding
  • Ask how the person would like to be helped
  • Remain calm - communicate as an equal
  • All sorts of reactions are normal
  • Give accurate information - if the person wants it
  • Attend to basic needs
  • Seek emergency assistance if needed
  • Protect the person

Ongoing help over the following weeks and months:

  • Do not force the person to talk
  • Offer practical help to the person

Encourage the person to:

  • Tell others when they need something
  • Take care of themselves
  • Do things they enjoy
  • Find sources of support
  • Rest
  • Avoid alcohol or other drugs

Monitor for signs of declining mental health.

What is vicarious trauma?

The term vicarious trauma sometimes also called 'compassion fatigue' is the latest term that describes the phenomena generally associated with the 'cost of caring' for others. Other common terms might be:

  • Secondary traumatic stress
  • Secondary victimisation

Tips for you and for any participants or staff in human services:

Before you disclose or talk about a traumatic experience, or your own diagnosis, in a group ask yourself:

  • Does this make my contribution any better?
  • Will I regret this if it is talked about outside this group?
  • Am I happy to know that the people I have told this to can't 'unknow' this information?

Speaking about what is going on for someone:

  • Don't ask them to tell the story
  • Ask them to tell you how they feel
  • Ask, what can I do to support you right now?

Be aware of when participants want to share content; consider having a set of group rules to guide and protect people from vicarious trauma or re-traumatisation of the person telling the story.

Keep your ears open for participants disclosing to others details of the mental health diagnosis. Help them to make informed decisions about who they disclose to.

Take care of yourself emotionally - engage in relaxing and self-soothing activities, nurture self-care. Look after your physical and mental wellbeing. Maintain a healthy work/life balance - have outside interests.

Source: Effective Policy & Effective Learning

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To make a referral, please visit https://www.careseekers.com.au/referrals