Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma
Andrew Stevens, TR Director of Field Operations
Team Rubicon volunteers often assist people who have been victimized. They work in and with communities that have been devastated by natural forces or conflict. They themselves are sometimes the targets of violence. As a result of all these things, our volunteers are likely to experience lasting psychological and spiritual changes in the way that they see themselves and the world.
Some of these changes can be positive. TR volunteers often talk about the espirit de corps and sense of missed community with other volunteers and how witnessing (and sometimes sharing in) the sufferings of people they are there to help has led to personal changes they appreciate – such as more compassion and gratitude, and a deeper understanding of what they value in their own lives and why.
However, some of the changes that can come from witnessing and experiencing suffering can be more problematic, leaving potentially permanent scars. Disaster relief and humanitarian aid work can sometimes leave individuals feeling numb, disconnected, isolated, overwhelmed, and depressed. Many talk of how their deepest beliefs have been challenged by their work. While some feel their faith (however they define that) has been strengthened by the work, some feel they lose their faith or emotional grounding as a result of things they see as a humanitarian worker.
Most simply put, vicarious trauma can be thought of as the negative changes that happen to humanitarian workers over time as they witness and engage with other people’s suffering and need. The following links explore some of the strategies that can help you recognize, reduce, and transform the negative changes that come from vicarious trauma in your life.
As a Team Rubicon volunteer, it is important to understand the process of vicarious trauma, because it will almost certainly impact you in some way. But that’s not all. It will also impact your family, our organization, and the people you are working to help. Every Team Rubicon volunteer should understand and recognize vicarious trauma and know how to help reduce and address it.
Knowledge (about the process of vicarious trauma) and action (healthy self-care and work habits) work together to protect your well-being. This means that you can remain happier, healthier, and more effective in your work. This benefits not only you, but your family, your colleagues, and those you assist.
For further information on recognizing the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma, as well as the coping mechanisms for mitigating the emotional risks associated with disaster relief, please see the online self-study module produced by the Headington Institute at http://headington-institute.org/Default.aspx?tabid=2646.
We do not deploy into disaster zones without a plan, let’s not leave without one either.