Recovering from Work Trauma

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I work as a “youth leader” for a residential treatment facility for youths with conduct, psychotic, AOD, or JSO disorders. Recently, I was working one on one with a youth when suddenly the resident got up, grabbed a “weapon,” walked into the hallway and began assaulting a peer. It happened so fast I was unable to stop the resident. Now, I cannot shake the feeling of being a complete failure, or that I could have done something to stop this incident. I face no consequence from work, but still this troubles me. Any searches I have done for support for people in my position: the workers who work directly with residents in mental health facilities, have come back pretty weak. Is their any kind of support for the “cogs” in the mental health field?

A: You should be getting support from your supervisor. Of course you’re upset. Of course you’re on edge. That only tells me that you are a conscientious counselor. I would want people like you on my staff. I certainly would want to keep you.

What happened to you is common. The client had the advantage. He was thinking about what he was going to do or he has such poor impulse control that he acted instantaneously. In either case, you were unprepared for how quickly he could move. On top of that, what’s called the “normalcy bias” probably kicked in. When a person can’t quite process what’s going on, the mind is likely to try to put it against an inner template of what is normal. You literally can’t believe what’s happening. By the time your brain says, “Yeah – that’s really happening,” several moments have passed.

Those of us in human services all have our first time when we’re caught unawares. I would venture that most of us have regrets we weren’t faster on our feet at the time. But there’s nothing we can do about not knowing what to do that first time. What we can do and should do is learn from it. Once we’ve been surprised like that, we learn what people in our charge are capable of and become more vigilant. Our “normalcy bias” becomes reset. At work, a low level of anxiety kicks in that is in fact useful. It keeps us on our toes. It helps us see potential signs of trouble before the trouble actually happens. It helps us swing into action faster sooner.

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that supervisors are so busy with managing their jobs that they don’t think to provide extra support. They’ve become so used to the potential for client acting out that they forget that they were once beginners too. If you think your supervisor could be helpful, I suggest you ask for a supervision session to process what happened. If your supervisor is overworked and unable to provide support, look for a long-timer who can mentor you.

Working in a facility such as you describe is hard, challenging work. Please give yourself a break. What matters is how you approach your job now. Apparently your workplace agrees since there haven’t been negative consequences. And thank you. Thank you for working with kids who need every bit of help we can offer them.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Jan 2012

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2012). Recovering from Work Trauma. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2012/01/06/recovering-from-work-trauma/