A recent article posted on Science Daily.com titled “Social Workers may indirectly experience post-traumatic stress“, discusses the impact that post traumatic stress disorder affected clients can have on their social worker. Research conducted at the University of Georgia; found that “repeatedly hearing the stories of trauma victims doubles the risk of social workers themselves experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder”.
In the study, assistant professor Brian Bride, found that 15% of social workers whom participated in the study met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, compared to 7.8% of the general population. This phenomenon, often referred to as “secondary post traumatic stress disorder” was first discovered nearly a decade ago. Of the 300 social workers surveyed in the University of Georgia Study, the results were;
• 40 percent thought about their work with traumatized clients without intending to
• 22 percent reported feeling detached from others
• 26 percent felt emotionally numb
• 28 percent had a sense of foreshortened future
• 27 percent reported irritability
• 28 percent reported concentration difficulties
The article stressed that while the incidence of secondary post traumatic stress disorder was high, awareness about the issue was low. Bride says “Social workers may hear about burnout and they may hear about self care, but they’re not hearing about secondary post traumatic stress disorder.” Bride goes on to say that in light of these findings he suggests that schools and universities training social workers educate students about how to minimize the risk of secondary post traumatic stress disorder. He also advises that it’s important for social workers to take time to themselves outside of work and participate in activities they enjoy, which he believes will reduce the possibility of secondary PTSD.
Having worked as a mental health counselor for three years before switching careers, I well relate to the distress social workers in this study experienced, but I think there are more variables related to secondary post traumatic disorder which we need to consider. This study primarily dealt with the stress a counselor experiences when their client repeatedly recounts traumatic events to them. However, for many mental health workers/social workers violent outbursts from their clients which may manifest itself in actual physical assault to their counselors are a very real possibility. Obviously, physical violence experienced by social workers, which wasn’t mentioned in this article, would exacerbate secondary post traumatic disorder. Additionally, I would agree with Bride that there is not enough awareness of secondary post traumatic disorder. Social work is possibly the most thankless job you can have in this life, and in many social work agencies, as long as you show up for work, no one cares how you, the counselor, feel. More social work agencies should make counseling more available to their workers in order to prevent what’s commonly referred to in the social work field as “burnout” and to prevent signs of secondary post traumatic stress disorder.