Professional Psychology: Research and Practice

Journal of Psychology and Theology, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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Professional Psychology: Research and Practice

Brady, J.L., Guy, J.D., Poelstra, EL., and Brokaw, B.F.

Vicarious Traumatization, Spirituality, and the Treatment of Sexual Abuse Survivors: A National Survey of Women Psychotherapists

Vol. 30, 386-393 (1999)

Working with trauma victims is something many professional psychologists do on a daily basis. However, little is known about the consequences that this may have on the therapist. Vicarious traumatization is the idea that through hearing about sexual trauma in clients, therapists will also experience a level of trauma. While this is not the exact same thing as burnout or secondary traumatic stress (i.e., experiencing symptoms similar to PTSD), vicarious traumatization is a result of being indirectly exposed to trauma. Some of the factors that may impact therapists' ability to adapt to repeatedly hearing about trauma of their clients are the therapists own sexual trauma history, level of exposure to details of the client trauma, and amount of time with sexual trauma victims. Previous research has also shown that therapists who see children with sexual trauma may experience higher levels of stress than therapists who see adult victims; the authors hypothesize that they will find similar results. While previous research does support the link between vicarious traumatization, little is known about the cause or direction of this link.

Brady et al. used a national survey of professional female psychologists (n = 446) who do trauma work with individuals. They collected information on demographics, including exposure to sexual trauma (e.g., current percentage of sexual trauma clients in caseload, current number of clinical hours spent with sexual trauma victims, and reported level of exposure to graphic details regarding the sexual trauma), the Impact of Events Scale (IES), the Traumatic Stress Institute (TSI) Belief Scale, and Spiritual Well-Being Scale. The sample appeared to be representative of the population of interest. The majority of participants were not in supervision (63%) and hours of formal training in how to treat sexual trauma ranged from 0 to 3,000.

Analysis of variance (ANOVA) results revealed that exposure variables was significantly associated with higher scores on the IES, but not the TSI Belief Scale. Results also indicated that there was no significant relationship between greater number of child sexual trauma clients and vicarious traumatization. Finally, a higher level of overall exposure to sexual trauma through clients was significantly associated with higher spiritual well-being.

While the results indicated a link between exposure to client trauma and trauma symptoms in therapists who see them, vicarious traumatization was not supported. Furthermore, the severity of trauma symptoms found in therapists was mild, which is important in training future clinicians and preparing them for what to expect in working with trauma victims.

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