Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, likely will rank among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Their fury upended millions of lives and left behind unknown numbers of traumatized survivors. Many of these survivors will turn to mental health professionals to cope with the aftermath.
More and more social workers are being enlisted to help some of society’s most vulnerable people: victims of domestic violence, child abuse, violent crimes and disasters. For instance, clinically trained social workers provide the majority of mental health services in the country, according to the National Association of Social Workers.
But the job carries a particular risk. Working with people who have been battered or brutalized can cause trauma among mental health professionals even though they have not experienced that violence or disaster firsthand.
In a survey of 142 social workers after Hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans and Rita in Baton Rouge in 2005, a quarter of them reported symptoms of secondary traumatic stress, such as emotional numbness and trouble concentrating. Another study found that one in seven licensed social workers had symptoms that met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The very practice of social work is “a holistic, person-centered approach where we are focused not on a symptom, but rather on the person,” Seth Kurzban, a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California, said in the report, “A Snapshot of Mental Illness in America,” created by the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work online MSW program.
Yet the traits that make mental-health professionals most effective — empathy, diligence and the tendency to devote themselves to their work for long stretches of time — can be their undoing. The emotional and mental toll can be especially acute for new mental health professionals who may be unprepared for the intensity of the job.
Left unaddressed, secondary traumatic stress can lead to burnout and make it harder for mental-health professionals to do their jobs well. A first step in dealing with it is to learn to recognize its telltale signs:
Intrusion: You relive the victim’s experience through dreams or flashbacks.
Avoidance: You become emotionally numb or detached. You might avoid conversations or deny feelings.
Arousal: You feel anxious, angry or hypervigilant.
Help for Helpers
Self-care is an essential tool in the field of social work. In an interview with the directory website Online MSW Programs, Jane C. Hickerson, assistant dean of field education at the University of Texas, Arlington, likened it to a parent donning an oxygen mask first during a flight emergency: Take care of yourself first so you can help others.
You can do that with some key coping tactics included in the publication, “Behavioral Health Response to Disasters:”
- Remember that stress reactions are normal and that they usually will pass.
- Be alert to changes in your physical, emotional and mental well-being.
- Limit the time you spend dealing directly with trauma cases.
- Share your experience with peers, which can help minimize feelings of isolation.
- Attend training on dealing with stress, or get professional help.
- Pursue personal interests, be it music, gardening or sports.
- Channel your frustrations into social activism, which can help restore your sense of purpose.