Honestly, vicarious trauma sucks ass. Too many people think that vicarious trauma is a myth that people use as an excuse. Truth is, it’s real and it’s too easily overlooked by society. By definition, vicarious trauma is the result of continuous interaction with those who have experiences trauma and by association, highly stressful situations. If left alone, the effects of vicarious trauma can be dangerous.
Unfortunately, my job is about 85% stressful situations. I have chosen a career path that has me interacting with a lot of children who have dealt with way more shit than they ever deserved or should have experienced. I read their files and hear their stories and it breaks my heart. Then, to see the effect it has on the kids is even worse. I have interacted with countless children who have had and currently have self-harm behaviors and suicidal ideations. They want to die because of what happened to them. They ask to talk and try to process their feelings with me and other staff at times.
If that’s what they need, then I am happy to provide a set of ears for them. Most of the time, I am confident in my responses and do my best to put their minds at ease at least for a time until they can meet with their therapist. But sometimes, I just don’t know what to say. And that makes me feel absolutely horrible. If I don’t have anything to say to them, then what good am I? How can I be good at my job if I’m at a literal loss for words when the kids need me to say something that will help them not want to hurt themselves or end their lives. My own therapist tells me that it’s okay to not know what to say and to tell the kids that. Deep down I believe that, seeing as how I am not a licensed therapist. I didn’t endure the years of school and learning that requires. But on some level, I still feel worthless to the kids that I have no words for. I know they appreciate me just listening to them, but I wish there was more I could do for them. For now, I guess I’ll just have to keep reminding myself that I am doing the best I can.
There are a lot of signs and symptoms that can lead to the conclusion that someone is suffering from vicarious trauma. I’ve noticed several of them in myself over the years. If you notice them in someone around you, don’t be afraid to speak up and be supportive!
* Unusually tired, even after taking a rest
* Difficulty sleeping or over sleeping
* Irregular headaches or body aches
* Increased anger and irritability
* Lasting feelings of grief and anxiety
*More easily distracted
* Increased isolation
* Increase or decrease in eating habits
* Avoiding work or other responsibilities
Burnout is a huge part of my job. My first weekend of work at the program I’m at now, an incident occurred with several girls that led to three staff quitting. Some people just aren’t able to handle the stress of the job and that’s okay. However, it’s frustrating when they all realize that at once and split, leaving the rest of us to figure it out. It ultimately leads to more stress on those of us who tough it out. The above symptoms and the associative stress is what leads to such a high burnout rate among mental health workers.
Unfortunately another part of my job includes physically restraining the kids when they become self-harmful or aggressive. The proper term is Emergency Safety Physical Intervention. No one enjoys doing this, but it necessary at times. The last week or so, one of my girls at work has been having a hard time with self-harm. We’ve had to intervene several times and it definitely takes a toll both physically and emotionally. The ESPIs can lead to vicarious trauma as well. It is extremely stressful to be holding a child who is screaming at you to just let them kill themselves. There have been several nights where I’d like to just throw in the towel and be done. But as much as I hate my job sometimes, I love it, too. It can be very rewarding when you see a kid make progress and eventually make it home or wherever their next step is. It definitely isn’t something I will do long-term; I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I think that’s part of where my dream of a nomadic and free lifestyle comes from.
My previous job as a foster care case worker in Massachusetts put a lot of emphasis on self-care. We even, at times, had whole meetings on the subject. Self care was hard for me while in Massachusetts. I dealt with the stress of my job during the day and went home to the stress of my fiancé at night. I literally never had a break. It usually doubled up with my ex texting me and calling me all day while I was at work to complain about one thing or another. I was burning out fast and everyone at my job took notice. No one really said anything because they weren’t sure how to help. I made two friends while working there who I know will be close friends for life. I talk to them regularly and they have been a huge part of me getting through leaving my ex and moving away.
Now that I don’t have that extra stress at home, I am able to focus more on myself and my own well being. I can come home and escape into one of my video games or take a long shower then relax with Albus without anything getting in the way. I think that, for sure, helps me be better at my job. I’ve talked a little about my main self-care components before and I plan on doing a bigger post about the topic in the future. It is something I take very seriously and preach to my girls on a daily basis. The biggest piece of advice I give them is that, from experience, it always gets worse before it gets better and that now is not forever. I have told every single one of my girls this and I have heard them repeating it to their parents and other kids in the program. I like to think I am making a difference in the lives of these girls and I truly hope that I am.
Everyone go home tonight and take some time for yourself. Sit for ten minutes and practice deep breathing. Go for a walk. Blast music and dance without a care. Do whatever works for you. You’re no help to anyone if you can’t take care of yourself.
Until next time…