In the wake of national disasters such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina as well as traumas such as sexual assault, social workers are among the first to help victims heal.
But a first of its kind study by a researcher in the University of Georgia School of Social Work finds that repeatedly hearing the stories of trauma victims doubles the risk of social workers themselves experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a study published in the January issue of the journal Social Work, assistant professor Brian Bride finds that while 7.8 percent of the general population experience PTSD over a lifetime, 15 percent of the social workers surveyed met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD within the week prior to being surveyed.
“In addition to working with disaster victims, social workers hear from children who have been sexually abused, victims of incest, rape, and people who have experienced the horrors of combat and community violence,” Bride said. “Hearing these stories over and over can produce thoughts and images that can be traumatic.”
The phenomenon of being indirectly victimized by trauma, known as secondary traumatic stress disorder, has only recently gained the attention of researchers. It was first recognized a decade ago in spouses of war veterans and family members of holocaust survivors. Bride said his study is the first to examine the phenomenon in a broad sample of social workers.
He surveyed nearly 300 practicing social workers in fields such as mental health and substance abuse, health care, child welfare and school social work and found that:
- 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
PTSD is a disorder characterized by symptoms that include repeated and unwanted memories of the event, avoidance responses such as emotional numbness, and so-called arousal responses such as hypervigilance or difficulty concentrating. Bride’s study found that 55 percent of those surveyed met one diagnostic criteria, 20 percent met two criteria and 15 percent met the three criteria necessary for a diagnosis of PTSD.
Bride said that although rates of secondary traumatic stress are significant among social workers, awareness of the disorder among professionals is low.
“Social workers may hear about burnout and they may hear about self care,” Bride said. “But they’re not hearing about secondary post traumatic stress disorder.”
He recommends that colleges and universities educate social work students on how to minimize the risk of secondary traumatic stress. Bride also urges employers to provide continuing education on the subject and to offer appropriate workloads, support, time off and mental health insurance.
Bride said that social workers themselves can reduce the likelihood of secondary traumatic stress by finding time for themselves and activities they enjoy. He also recommends that social workers understand which cases are most distressing to them and to schedule those clients so they are not a disproportionate share of their workload.
People enter helping professions such as social work because they want to make a difference, Bride said, but he warns that secondary traumatic stress has the potential to reduce the quality of care social workers provide and may ultimately drive people from the profession.
“We suspect that people are leaving social work because of this,” he said.
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