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Helping Students Cope with Trauma and Loss: Online Training for School Personnel with Helene Jackson, Ph.D.
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This course was edited by Sharon Kay. The project was developed by the Columbia University School of Social Work with support from the Bank Street College of Education.

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Self-Care for School Personnel: Vicarious Traumatization

Vicarious traumatization, when not addressed, can interfere with clinicians' personal and professional lives.

Studies have shown that mental-health professionals can suffer from trauma symptoms as a result of treating clients who have been exposed to traumatic loss, family and community violence, and other traumas. This phenomenon, known as vicarious traumatization 14 is a result of continued and prolonged exposure to listening to the traumatic experiences of others. Vicarious traumatization can trigger symptoms in the therapist that are similar to those experienced by their clients, such as intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal. There is strong evidence that those who themselves have trauma histories may be particularly vulnerable to these reactions. 15

Vicarious traumatization can produce fundamental changes in the therapist's worldview—from being optimistic to pessimistic, and from feeling secure and in control, to emotional states of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. For most, these effects are transient. However, if not addressed, they can become pervasive and permanent, interfering with all aspects of a person's life. Although studies on such effects have not been done with teachers, school counselors, or administrators, we believe that, because of your intense and prolonged contact with school-age children who have been exposed to multiple traumas, you too are at risk for experiencing the damaging effects of vicarious traumatization.

From the information we have about Ms. Jones, it is reasonable to consider that she may be experiencing vicarious traumatization. Her heightened and persistent reactions to the school shooting seem to be related to the aftereffects of her own exposure, and to the accumulation of traumatic reminders embedded in the stories she hears from her students and their families. Her symptoms are pervasive, interfering with her professional and personal life. Her hesitance and embarrassment about sharing her thoughts and feelings with her colleagues is not unusual. Yet the therapeutic value of sharing such experiences and concerns with peers cannot be overestimated.

Following major disasters, Ms. Jones, and others like her, may be experiencing secondary stresses, such as a move to a fragmented school environment, lack of teaching materials, changes in students' behavior and performance, and pressure from parents who ask for guidance on how to manage their children's trauma reactions. 12

Fourth grade teacher: I think they figured that we were kind of the ones in the trenches, you know, and teachers always make it work.

A fourth-grade teacher talks about her experience in a school from which she and her students were evacuated:
We were in extremely chaotic circumstances, literally, you know, enormous number of children in a single room—children in a single room with no place to sit, with no place to eat, with no place to play outside. And people were very accommodating there. You know, I was in a room with another teacher who—a music teacher had pulled himself out of that room with absolutely no notice and was traveling to other classrooms and certainly people at the school were as accommodating as they could be, but they couldn't help that they didn't have the space for us.

But there was no place to line up, there was no place to stand, like I said, there was no place to eat. Our kids sat in—and the fourth graders I know like on a, a filthy rug, forty kids on a tiny rug that should've accommodated 15 or 18, all of them eating their lunch on this disgusting rug that never got vacuumed. It wasn't about anybody neglecting us, but it was about the fact that people were in such a hurry to get things started again, and I think they figured that we, we were kind of the ones in the trenches, you know, and teachers always make it work. That is our job. We always make everything work.

As school personnel, it is important that you have an infrastructure that encourages you to express your thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental and nurturing environment, and that allows you to seek mental-health support without stigma. Barring such outlets, you are at risk of being unable to respond to your students with sensitivity, empathy, and understanding. (You will learn more about this in the Administrators section.) Taking care of yourself will help you manage your stress and feel more comfortable. As a result, your ability to respond effectively to your students and their families will be greatly improved.

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