Human Services Guide

Trauma, Vicarious Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

There are many careers in human services where the human services worker is likely to come into contact with people who have experienced severe trauma. Whether you are a counselor working with combat veterans who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or as a Case Worker in Child Welfare attempting to place a child who has suffered extensive abuse, knowledge of how trauma impacts the mental and emotional workings of your client will be extremely helpful in being effective at your job. Another crucial to understand issue is that of Vicarious Trauma. Vicarious trauma is the passing along of trauma from a trauma survivor to that of someone who works with or interacts with the trauma survivor. This was first observed with nurses who worked with combat veterans who had severe PTSD. Understanding the implications of vicarious trauma is extremely important as a human services worker who is likely to interact with trauma survivors.

Trauma can take many forms from emotional or sexual abuse, to a severe accidental injury or horrific combat conditions. In most cases, trauma is considered to be either a severe impact to either one’s physical or emotional well-being. In cases of physical trauma there can often be an emotional component as well. For example, a combat veteran who has lost a limb due to an explosion will often have severe emotional distress in addition to the massive physical trauma. A physical component is not actually required for someone to have experienced trauma. An example is a child who witnesses the severe abuse of a parent, grandparent or sibling can have extreme emotional trauma while not having experienced a physical component at all. In all cases, trauma must be treated with the utmost respect, care and compassion. Different individuals have varying responses to trauma and only the individual who has experienced the trauma can truly understand the full emotional impact that the trauma has on their psyche. The human services worker who is working with the trauma victim must remember to take extreme care to create a safe, compassionate environment for the survivor of trauma so that they can begin to heal from their experience.

For those who have suffered a severely traumatizing experience there is often a long term psychological component that continues to impact the survivor years and even decades after the traumatic event. During situations where severe trauma occurs the survivor may shut down emotionally or mentally in order to survive the shock of what has occurred. In some cases of severe trauma there can even be an associated memory loss due to horrific nature of the trauma. For those with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, seemingly mundane occurrences such as a car backfiring or an implied rape scene in a movie can act as powerful triggers that cause the survivor to experience flashbacks to the traumatic experience. This is one of the many reasons why trauma survivors must be treated with such care and compassion as the outside observer cannot usually grasp the degree to which the trauma has impacted the individual who experienced it. Thus it is of paramount importance to create a safe space, have excellent listening skills and convey a deep sense of compassion for those who have experienced trauma. For those individuals who have severe PTSD, the work of healing a traumatic event or series of events, such as in the case of repeated sexual abuse, can take years of dedicated work on the part of the survivor. For those working with trauma victims helping them to transform and heal their memories and experiences can be a profoundly challenging and ultimately rewarding experience.

One critical component to understand if you plan on working with survivors of trauma is the phenomenon of Vicarious Trauma. The occurrence of Vicarious Trauma is related to those who work in close contact with trauma survivors. In some cases those who work with trauma survivors will empathically take on aspects of the trauma that the survivor has experienced. This can result in symptoms that are similar to those of trauma survivors themselves. Some symptoms can include: Increased aggression, decreased sex drive, sexual dysfunction, difficulty with boundaries, sleep problems, intrusive imagery, sudden increase in cynical outlook, depression, issues around trust and intimacy and greater sensitivity to violence. Making sure to prioritize self-care, maintenance of healthy boundaries with clients and early detection of symptoms can all help to minimize or eliminate the intrusion of Vicarious Trauma into the life of the Human Services worker.

Trauma and its related issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Vicarious Trauma (VT) are all important issues to understand when one goes into the field of human services as the likelihood of contacting a trauma survivor is much higher than in other fields. By gaining knowledge and when possible receiving training around Trauma, PTSD and VT, the Human Services worker can increase their compassion and healthy boundary maintenance. By developing your skillset around Trauma, PTSD and VT you can become a more effective Human Services professional and also increase your overall understanding of the dynamics of trauma in human behavior.