Vicarious trauma

How to take care of yourself as a whānau supporter, and recognise the signs of vicarious trauma.

When you're involved in supporting whānau whose lives are stressful, chaotic and traumatic, it’s not unusual to be personally affected. Repeatedly hearing their descriptions of the distressing circumstances and disturbing events can take a toll on supporters. Being exposed to the trauma and suffering of others can result in a condition known as ‘vicarious trauma’, or ‘compassion fatigue’.

Different to burnout, where over a period of time one becomes overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the work, vicarious trauma is more about the specific nature of the work in the helping fields.

Signs of vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma can manifest itself in many ways. Whānau supporters can find themselves growing tense, irritable, or even having a preoccupation with the traumatic experiences they hear about from the families. Home life and family relationships may also be negatively affected by this condition, with disrupted sleep, challenges to do with intimacy and trust, or an increase in alcohol intake.

Vicarious trauma can seriously affect the supporter's ability to do their job well. It may manifest itself in a wide range of behaviours that can stop their effective engagement with whānau.

How to deal with vicarious trauma

It is important for workers in helping fields to be aware of their own stress responses and history of past trauma. Regular and robust supervision is a must, and knowing what help you might need and where to get it is important, whether it be emotional, cultural, spiritual or physical support.