The impact of COVID-19 raised awareness of mental health and trauma, yet many efforts stopped there without implementing approaches that prevented re-traumatization, promoted safety and stability, and cultivated resilience for individuals and families.
At the Central Iowa Trauma-Recovery Center, my team and I are advancing a model that embraces evidence-based practices of trauma-informed care, and yet, goes further in helping survivors of violent crimes by emphasizing healing-centered engagement and post-traumatic growth. The approach recognizes that even with the devastating impact of a traumatic event, people are resilient and can overcome challenges with the appropriate mix of services and support.
Working with individuals who have experienced significant trauma requires providers to offer active listening, empathy, and a deep understanding of the emotional impact of people’s experiences. For those of us who work in “helping professions,” such as victim counselors, law enforcement, physicians, nurses, social workers, prosecutors, and judges, the daily exposure to traumatic material and engaging in intense emotions can lead to changes in our own mental, physical, or emotional health.
Between 40% and 85% of “helping professionals” develop vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and/or high rates of traumatic symptoms, according to compassion fatigue expert Francoise Mathieu (2012). These outcomes can manifest as feelings of helplessness, fear, or anger; detachment; boundary violations; use of drugs or alcohol to cope; and/or other symptoms.
How do we sustain ourselves in professions that require so much of us? How do we consistently provide a high level of care to others without experiencing emotional exhaustion or burnout?
In addition to providing services to trauma survivors, the Central Iowa Trauma Recovery Center has been working with entities to foster a culture that promotes the well-being and resilience of providers who serve survivors. We encourage institutional leaders and managers to implement policies and practices and provide resources that encourage several key principles for sustaining people for difficult, but critical, work.
Here are areas where we encourage support:
Service providers must prioritize their well-being and take steps to maintain their physical, mental, and emotional health. This includes setting boundaries with others at work and in their life, engaging in self-reflection, and seeking support from peers, supervisors, or mental health professionals. Organizations can ensure there is time built into the work week and/or flexibility in people’s schedules for appointments and to engage in self-care activities. Making wellness part of the workday removes the mental obligation of your team members finding time for “one more thing” to add to their schedule.
Adequate training and education are essential for helping professionals. Organizations should offer regular trainings that support staff in developing a comprehensive understanding of trauma-informed care and healing-centered engagement, as well as acquiring effective communication techniques and coping strategies for dealing with vicarious trauma. Incorporate practices that include a focus on post-traumatic growth and resilience. Providers can learn to cultivate hope by identifying and celebrating the small but meaningful victories that clients have experienced in the midst of their trauma.
Regular supervision and support from experienced professionals can help providers process difficult emotions and reflect on their work. Coach supervisors to provide a safe space for debriefing and offering guidance on managing challenging situations. Also implement the practice of compassionate accountability – the concept of calling someone in versus calling them out. Engage your team with grace. For all of us, some days are more difficult than others. Leading with grace and compassion will go a long way in creating that sense of safety and support that will extend far beyond those difficult moments.
Building a supportive and collaborative work environment is crucial for emotional sustainability. Encourage teamwork, open and honest communication, and mutual support among team members to help mitigate the impact of vicarious trauma and foster a greater sense of belonging among staff.
Developing resilience, or the ability to bounce back from difficulties, is essential for both providers and victims to maintain emotional stability and adaptability in the face of ongoing challenges. Model and support techniques, such as mindfulness practices, stress management, and self-compassion.
Establishing clear boundaries is critical for emotional sustainability. Help providers be aware of their own limitations, recognize signs of burnout or compassion fatigue, and practice self-awareness to prevent overextending themselves emotionally.
Providers coming into the profession with their own history of unaddressed trauma should focus on their recovery prior to seeing clients. It is impossible to assist clients in navigating their journey to heal and recover if someone is too immersed within the trauma of their experiences. Prioritizing healing and well-being will help you and your staff become the best version of yourselves while consistently dealing with the pain of others and maintaining professional objectivity and perspective.
By cultivating a culture of compassion and understanding through intentional strategies, organizational leaders can enhance helping professionals’ ability to support the emotional well-being of themselves and the individuals they serve. Ultimately, mental and emotional sustainability ensures that services to individuals who have experienced trauma remain effective, compassionate, and supportive in the long term.
Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.