Definition – Vicarious traumatization (VT) is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. (Wikipedia)
Anyone who copes with the pain and suffering of others day in and day out is susceptible to this event. Working inside prisons and jails you just can’t turn your mind and emotions on or off as you go to work or coming home. It is very difficult to get certain trauma related things out of your head or after witnessing a blunt force assault or stabbing. In other words it is hard to let go of such thoughts. How do you let go of the terrible things you see and hear on the job?
Many of us, especially those of us in a helping or custodial profession, are secondary witnesses to trauma almost every day. As we listen to our clients tell about their personal trauma of being a witness to a death or sustained injuries, rape, violence, alcoholic families or memories of childhood abuse, we bear witness to their victimization.
We listen, we support and we validate their feelings and their experience. We offer them the opportunity to let go of some of their burdens. As witnesses and custodians or guardians for the state, we can’t help but to take in some of the emotional pain they have left with us. As the prisoner releases some of their pain, we take it in. By the end of the day, we’ve collected bits and pieces of accounts of trauma. We may have pictures in our mind or intense feelings running through our body. We’ve become a witness to rape, abuse, violence and death and much more… In simple terms, this vicarious trauma is also indirectly experienced by professionals and volunteers as a secondary victimization.
Secondary victimization is a serious deal. It impacts the workers’ family life, personal relationships, behaviors and other mental and emotional aspects of their lives. They must recognize the warning signs and be prepared to care for their own needs to cope with vicarious trauma.
Sadly there has been ample research done on prisoners and how prison life impacts their mental health and overall wellness. There has also been sufficient progress made with the treatment of mental health providers that are exposed to such conditions.
It has been documented and reported via many different avenues of educational and research sources that prison life has its negative side as their living conditions and environmental influences limit their ability to maintain a stable and healthy lifestyle as well as being limited to essential services such as medical, dental and mental health programs designed to provide reactive care rather than preventive care.
It is my opinion that academies of psychology and those professionals that conduct human research in distinguishing stress and other trauma related illness are ignoring the needs of the correctional officers and those employees assigned inside the penitentiaries as well as the large metropolitan jail systems. Stress and distress are common factors to deal with daily during a day’s work inside a prison.
The fact that prison employees often don’t report or seek help and treatment does not prevent the phenomena to exist. There are many hidden descriptions of and reactions of trauma unreported. Common concepts readily accepted as fact are burnout, fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and work related stressors that go with their jobs. Since little has been done to deal with and acknowledge the impact factors of work related exposures to these workers it may actually be revealed through research that there are other experiences that actual cause further distress and trauma to the workers.
Assessments of personal trauma impact statements are overdue. A complete and accurate research paper is badly needed to outline and identify exactly what such direct trauma exposure causes in a process identified as VT. This assessment should identify and measure the existence of VT and how it impacts the personal attributes of all workers inside the jails and prison. It would help reduce staff turnover, reduce violence, stabilize the workforce and provide therapeutic help or assistance to those identified in need of such a support mechanism.
Terri Spahn Nelson, MSSW, LISW