Academic journal article Rural Society

Vicarious Traumatization and Transition House Workers in Remote, Northern British Columbia Communities

Academic journal article Rural Society

Vicarious Traumatization and Transition House Workers in Remote, Northern British Columbia Communities

Article excerpt


Vicarious traumatization is an occupational hazard defined as, 'the transformation in the inner experience of the therapist that comes about as a result of empathic engagement with clients' trauma material'. (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 31) identify trauma workers as people who could be affected by vicarious traumatization. The concept of vicarious traumatization is often confused with burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD), and posttraumatic-stress disorder (PTSD). However, the literature does identify distinct differences between the concepts. Burnout is defined as, 'a specific occupational stress syndrome occurring when human service professionals become emotionally exhausted, begin to dehumanize their clients, and lose a sense of personal accomplishment at work' (Maslach, 1982 as cited in Baird & Jenkins, 2003, p. 72). Compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress are two terms that are used interchangeably and manifest as sudden adverse reactions as a result of working with trauma survivors (Jenkins & Baird, 2002). Compassion fatigue focuses primarily on symptoms and emotional responses and it can occur suddenly without warning, thus differentiating it from burnout and vicarious traumatization (Figley, 1995). Vicarious traumatization is a form of secondary trauma. McCann and Pearlman (1990) believe that vicarious traumatization is a unique phenomenon distinct from other concepts because the affected individuals experience alterations to their cognitive schemas. Lerias and Byrne (2003) suggest that the symptoms of vicarious traumatization are very similar to the symptoms for post traumatic stress disorder found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.


Sabin-Farrell and Turpin (2003) commented on some explanations that attribute the cause of vicarious traumatization to countertransference. This involves a process of over-identifying with a trauma victim or meeting personal needs through the victim. Friedman (2001) and Rasmussen (2005) suggested the empathetic dispositions of workers that deal with trauma may contribute to vicarious traumatization. In a phenomenological study of vicarious traumatization, Steed and Downing (1998) found anger, pain, and frustration experienced by workers who listened to traumatic stories of violence and abuse day after day shaped their beliefs and were associated with physiological effects, such as disturbed sleep and fatigue. In their view, vicarious traumatization was seen to result from cognitive changes, alterations in a person's system of beliefs based on experience and exposure to disturbing material. In addition to these possible causal factors, Lerias and Byrne (2003) identified personal factors contributing to vicarious traumatization such as psychological well-being, level of social support, age, gender, education, and socio-economic status.


Transition house workers

Unpredictable and high stress work environments can increase a person's vulnerability to vicarious traumatization. Transition house support workers or anti-violence workers are, 'one population of workers known for intensive work with victims of physical and sexual abuse' (Jeffrey, 1999, p. 2). Support workers hear stories of abuse and they also observe the survivors' emotions of fear, helplessness, and horror. Zimering, Munroe, and Gulliver (2003) explain that these occupational duties may lead to psychological symptoms in the trauma worker. Iliffe and Steed (2000) conducted a study to explore the impact of vicarious traumatization on counsellors working with domestic violence clients. Respondents identified experiencing vicarious traumatization and alterations in their cognitive schema. In particular, safety, worldview, and gender power issues were the cognitive schemas that were altered. Respondents reported experiencing negative feelings, visual imagery of traumatic narratives, and physiological reactions, such as, nausea and a feeling of heaviness. …

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