Secondary Trauma

Real talk: working in the helping field is hard. I absolutely love my job and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but it is hard.

People come into the helping field for many different reasons. Some people enter the field because their family worked in the field. Your mom was a social worker, so you become one too. Others enter the field because they have some sort of engrained passion for helping people in difficult situations. A third group is those that join the field as what we like to call the ‘wounded healer.’ These people have been hurt by something similar to what they deal with in the helping field and have used this hurt to drive them forward to help others dealing with similar struggles. For example, a kid in foster care may grow up to want to become a foster parent or work in the foster care system. Despite the reason for becoming a helper, it is important to ensure that we are protected from something called secondary trauma.

By the nature of my work, I am exposed nearly every day to extremely heart wrenching stories of kids that have gone through such horrible things. I find myself wanting to scoop up all these hurt kiddos and squeeze them until the pain just disappears. If only it was that easy! Instead, I do my best to become the person they can count on to be there unconditionally. I lend a listening ear, and when (or if) they are ready, they pour their hearts out. As they share their story, my heart breaks a little more for them. I hear the pain in their voice as they talk about their long history of heartbreak, trauma, and loss. This happens time and again; my heart breaks more with each person I work with. Unfortunately, there came a point for me in which I began feeling myself spiraling downward. I became angry at the world as I started to believe there was no justice for these hurt kids. How is it fair that such small people experience such big pain? And why does it keep happening??? I started to lose my faith in society, believing there was no good in the world. I became wary of strangers and started to see the bad in everyone. I started to get so sad that I became angry. I began losing sleep over the situations these kids were in. My social life dwindled as I began losing the will to get out of my bed – because why should I? Why should I stand up and fight when there is just no justice? This. This is secondary trauma. This is the point nobody wants to reach in their line of work, but unfortunately, it is all too common.

The scary part is that secondary trauma is not just about ‘feeling down’ or feeling sad about someone else’s situation. Secondary trauma, when untreated, can very quickly turn into something much more serious. It can cause you to become depressed and unable to function normally in your life. You may start feeling sick, irritable, angry, sad, and achy. You may even have troubles focusing or participating in regular everyday tasks that you normally perform amazingly in. Secondary trauma is hard, and it can be very scary. As caregivers, family members, friends, social workers, psychologists, community support workers, health care aides, and emergency personnel, it is important that we stay in tune with our mental and physical health. We need to know when we are starting to feel the burn of secondary trauma, and then we need to learn to reach out in the early stages instead of when it is in the late stages where it begins to impact your ability to function normally.

I am grateful to report that following my journey with secondary trauma, I was successful in getting the help I needed and am in a much healthier spot today. I now reach out and get help when I need it instead of letting it build up to wreak havoc on my soul. Help can look different for everyone. Some people benefit from formal or group therapy, while others benefit from regular nights out with friends. Some benefit from yoga or a walk, while others benefit from heavy exercise. The point is that you need to stay in tune with yourself. Know your warning signs. Know when your mental (or physical!) health is starting to decline and deal with it right away. No more excuses. We both know that when we say ‘I will do it tomorrow,’ it’s not going to happen. Do it, and do it now. Your health is important. After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup!

-Thoughts from Michelle Cronkhite, the Service Enhancement Coordinator at MPCSSN

Have you experienced secondary trauma? How do you recognize the signs and take care of yourself?