Understanding Secondary Traumatic Stress

An introduction to the topic from Teresa Huizar, Executive Director, National Children's Alliance.

Key Points for CAC Directors to Know

What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is the emotional distress that results when an individual hears about the trauma experiences of another. STS is a trauma condition, and those with symptoms severe enough could be diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, individuals affected by STS may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory, mood, and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.

 

Who Can be Affected by STS?

STS does not just impact clinicians; it is an important issue for the entire MDT.  STS can impact anyone in a CAC who comes into contact with traumatic material through hearing client’s trauma stories, seeing high levels of distress in the aftermath of a traumatic event, retelling a client’s story for forensic purposes, and/or seeing photos or other graphic images related to the abuse.  Every member of the multidisciplinary team can be at risk of developing symptoms of STS if they have this type of indirect exposure. 

 

What is the Impact of STS on the Worker?

The trauma symptoms associated with STS may impact every area of an employee’s life. Some employees will experience mild reactions, while others may report a symptom profile consistent with PTSD. Social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, avoidance, mood changes, and relational disturbance are all common traumatic stress reactions that can lead to functional impairment if unaddressed. CAC employees may notice a change in their outlook on life, their perceptions of the world as a safe place, and their reaction to danger. If employees are reporting symptoms that are impacting their functioning, they should be referred for a trauma assessment and assistance from a trauma therapist if indicated.

 

What Can CAC's do to Address STS?

There are a range of activities that organizational leaders can implement to prevent or address STS. Good supervision allows CAC staff to process the personal impact of the work and sends the message that indirect trauma exposure is an issue that should be monitored and addressed.  This allows supervisors to make referrals to resources such as a qualified EAP provider, when additional support and assistance is needed. Sessions where employees can share with peers how they are feeling about a client encounter, without oversharing graphic details of the client’s trauma can decrease the secondary exposure to others, yet allows employees to metabolize the experience and may discharge the potency of its effects.  Organizational strategies such as team building, employee recognition, and supporting staff in creating a work- life balance activates and supports the employee’s natural coping abilities.

Creating a culture of resiliency by identifying and strengthening the coping skills of staff and the MDT can serve to reduce the potential impact of traumatic stress.  CAC leadership can look to the characteristics described in stress hardy literature that includes a set of attitudes or beliefs that help increase well-being and resistance to stress. Stress hardy people tend to feel committed, in control, and willing to embrace challenge. (Kobasa, 1979).  In addition, they may have higher emotional intelligence, are optimistic and have an internal vs. external locus of control. All of these characteristics can be considered when hiring new CAC staff and, as these characteristics can be learned, strengthening stress hardiness and other stress management skills can be a focus of staff development and training. Developing a culture within the CAC that focuses on strengthening, acknowledging and celebrating the staff and MDTs management of stress while having mechanisms described above in place to support staff in managing exposure to STS can build resiliency and be a benefit to the health and wellbeing of CAC staff and the MDT.

 

Questions and Answers

Q: What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Cambria Walsh, Project Director of the Center for Child Welfare Trauma-informed Policies, Programs, and Practices at Rady Children’s Hospital, defines secondary traumatic stress.

 

 

Length of the video - 1 minute and 14 seconds

Q: How does STS Affect Clinicians Working with Children Who Have Experienced Trauma?

Cambria Walsh, Project Director of the Center for Child Welfare Trauma-informed Policies, Programs, and Practices at Rady Children’s Hospital, describes the effect of STS on clinicians.
 
 

 

Length of the video - 0 minute and 37 seconds

Q: What Types of Administrative Policies and Procedures Can be Helpful in Building a Reilient Organization and Addressing STS?

Cambria Walsh, Project Director of the Center for Child Welfare Trauma-informed Policies, Programs, and Practices at Rady Children’s Hospital, identifies policies and procedures for building resiliency and addressing STS within organizations.

 

 

Length of the video - 2 minute and 54 seconds

Q: What are Some Strategies for Addressing STS Through Clinical Supervision?

Cambria Walsh, Project Director of the Center for Child Welfare Trauma-informed Policies, Programs, and Practices at Rady Children’s Hospital, identifies strategies for addressing STS in clinical supervision.

 

 

Length of the video - 3 minute and 56 seconds

Q: What are the Potential Implications for Clients and the MDT When a Clinician has Unaddressed Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Cambria Walsh, Project Director of the Center for Child Welfare Trauma-informed Policies, Programs, and Practices at Rady Children’s Hospital, discusses the implications for clients and the MDT when STS is unaddressed.

 

 

Length of the video - 2 minute and 31 seconds

Q: Within the CAC/MDT Setting, How Can the MH Clinician Provide Expertise and Act as a Resource on the Topic of STS?

Cambria Walsh, Project Director of the Center for Child Welfare Trauma-informed Policies, Programs, and Practices at Rady Children’s Hospital, explores how clinicians can provide expertise and resources on STS.

 

 

Length of the video - 1 minute and 28 seconds

 

Additional Resources

Click here to download a printable summary of the information on this page.
 
Secondary Traumatic Stress: A Fact Sheet for Child-Serving Professionals
 
Secondary Trauma and Child Welfare Staff: Guidance for Supervisors and Administrators
 
 
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