Vicarious Trauma: When Teaching Takes Its Toll

Teachers are often the first point of contact and source of support for children who have experienced trauma, but caring for others can take a toll on our own mental health. Learn about the symptoms of vicarious trauma and the support available for school staff.
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Trauma refers to an event that is so extreme or intense that it overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. There are many experiences that can be traumatic for a child, including abuse, neglect, a natural disaster, an accident, or the sudden loss of a loved one. You can learn more about trauma, common symptoms, and interventions in our previous blog.

Education professionals are very often the first point of contact and source of support for children who have experienced trauma. These children may struggle with mental health and behavioural challenges as a result of the trauma they have faced, so teachers play a crucial role in identifying those in need of support, organising early intervention, and providing access to specialist support.

However, mental health services have failed to keep pace with rising demand in recent years. As more and more children face significant delays in accessing support, teachers are stepping in to fill the gap.

Of course, teachers care deeply about their pupils and work hard to support them through any challenges they may face. But, as we know, a teacher’s expertise lies in their ability to teach. They lack the extensive years of training and professional network that prepares a psychotherapist to support traumatised children on their road to recovery. Without the right support, repeated exposure to traumatic narratives can put school staff at risk of psychological distress. This can begin to take its toll in a number of ways.

The Cost of Care

  • Burnout

Burnout refers to the physical and emotional exhaustion that employees can feel as a result of feeling powerless and overwhelmed at work. Common symptoms include fatigue, poor concentration, detachment, self-doubt, and an increasingly negative outlook on the world.

Unsurprisingly, burnout is particularly common amongst the helping professions, including healthcare workers and educators, as caring for people who are vulnerable can be an extremely demanding role. But burnout is growing amongst other occupations, often due to a combination of factors, such as work-life balance, conflicts with coworkers, caring responsibilities, and neglecting to take care of one’s own needs. Typically, the symptoms of burnout can be relieved by taking a break from work, prioritising self-care, and relying on others for support.

  • Compassion fatigue

Whilst burnout can be found in almost any profession, compassion fatigue is a type of burnout that is specific amongst teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and other helping professionals. It describes the emotional and physical erosion that takes place when practitioners are repeatedly exposed to other people’s suffering, leading to a sense of emotional numbness and apathy.

Compassion fatigue shares many of the same symptoms as burnout, including feelings of exhaustion, helplessness, and isolation. However, it is accompanied with other symptoms, such as reduced feelings of empathy and sensitivity, loss of interest in hobbies and activities, and increased conflict in personal relationships. If the problem persists over an extended period of time, compassion fatigue can also lead to anxiety and depression.

There are a number of coping strategies professionals can use to mitigate the symptoms of compassion fatigue, such as meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises and workout routines. Professional help is also available to support individuals with managing stress and developing resilience.

  • Vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma describes the profound shift in worldview that occurs when individuals are exposed to firsthand accounts of trauma and other traumatic material. This is an occupational hazard for helping professionals, but it can be experienced by anyone when hearing about the trauma of a loved one.

Vicarious trauma is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but its symptoms can be quite similar: intrusive thoughts, nightmares, dissociation, avoidance and hyperarousal. Not everyone will experience vicarious trauma in the same way; whilst some will experience many different psychiatric symptoms, others may experience very few or none at all. Primarily, however, vicarious trauma will significantly alter an individual’s perception of themselves and the wider world.

Like with burnout and compassion fatigue, people who suffer with vicarious trauma are encouraged to prioritise work-life balance and pursue an active, healthy lifestyle to alleviate the symptoms. But in most cases, recovery also relies on having access to professional support, either through a therapist, mentor, or peer support programme.

On the Flip Side

Whilst taking a step back from the job and devoting time to self-care can be an essential part of the recovery process, it is not a sustainable solution for those who want to return to work and continue helping our most vulnerable learners. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research which captures the positive impact of working closely with survivors of trauma, paving the way towards greater job satisfaction and engagement.

Compassion satisfaction is the counterpart – or indeed, the antidote – to compassion fatigue, referring to the feeling of pleasure that is derived from helping others. This can act as a protective factor against compassion fatigue by helping practitioners find meaning and purpose in their roles.

Similarly, vicarious resilience offers a counterbalance to vicarious trauma. This refers to the positive growth and learning that occurs when professionals work with survivors of trauma; they become inspired by the individuals’ capacity for recovery and healing, better preparing them to cope with adversity in their own lives.

It is natural to reassess our assumptions and understanding of the world in response to traumatic material. However, the narratives we create are often a reflection of the training and support we receive. Simply by raising awareness of compassion satisfaction and vicarious resilience, we can help practitioners to situate themselves within a schema that focuses on empathy, connection, purpose and fulfilment. But much more than that, positive transformation and growth relies on professional community and social support.

What Can We Do?

The symptoms of burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma can negatively impact a workplace when education professionals and other practitioners do not receive the support they need. This can create a toxic work environment, which exacerbates the issue and ultimately inhibits the quality of education that our young people receive. That’s why it’s important for school leaders to cultivate a culture of care, open communication, and trust, ensuring that staff are supported and feel safe to disclose any concerns.

Reflective practice groups and clinical supervision can also be incredibly powerful tools to support staff wellbeing in the workplace. This gives staff the opportunity to reflect on their experiences at work and manage their emotional responses, as well as sharing strategies with supervisors and colleagues to promote learning, growth and resilience.

In this way, we can help education professionals rediscover the passion and motivation to continue doing the work they enjoy and make a lasting and positive impact on the lives of children and young people.

If you are interested in supporting your staff through reflective practice groups and clinical supervision, please get in touch with our Creative Psychotherapy in Education (CPE) team to find out how we can help.

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