The Effects of Trauma on Clients and Mental Health Counselors Essay

Anyone who deals regularly with victims of trauma or is exposed to graphic pictures or text of trauma, can experience the effects of secondary or vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma (VT) will affect thinking, while secondary traumatic stress (STS), or compassion fatigue, affects feelings and behavior of the counselor. The purpose of this paper is to discuss man-made or natural disasters as well as personal trauma, and the counselor’s role in these situations. Skills to help the counselor deal with the effects of vicarious trauma will also be discussed in this assignment. Trauma Examples

Man-made and natural disasters are traumatic to both the client and to the counselor. Oftentimes, the counselor is also feeling the effects of the disaster that has occurred, and is trying on his own to deal with the aftermath himself. He then needs to assist the client with dealing with the event as well. The example that comes to this writer’s mind is the 9/11 attacks and the sniper shootings in the Washington DC area that followed the terrorist attacks a year later. These two events were terrifying for those of us who lived in the areas of the attacks—this writer will never forget the feeling of the ground shaking when the Pentagon was hit—and watching the military planes take off into the sky—the desperation of trying to get in touch with loved ones in NYC and the helplessness in trying to get to my son’s school to hug him close. The event this writer wishes to discuss is one that happened in my hometown, a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: The DC Sniper. The snipers were eventually caught, after a three week killing spree which left 10 people killed and three others injured, in the DC area.

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There was speculation that John Muhammad had sympathized with bin Laden and was supportive of the attacks on the Twin Towers and The Pentagon . His partner in the sniper shootings, John Lee Malvo, was only 17 at the time of their killing spree. This writer remembers the fear of dropping her oldest son off at school—knowing the sniper could be anywhere. During the course of the three weeks, the snipers hit a school within view of her oldest son’s school: Tasker Middle School in Bowie Maryland. The fear and panic felt in this writer’s home town was indescribable—kids were being kept home from school—no one was leaving their homes. People were ducking behind their vehicles while pumping gas. The fear and anxiety felt in the area was evident in all the faces whenever someone dared go outside. In this type of crises situation, people are traumatized and become untrusting.

The feeling surrounding this crisis was no one could be trusted, no place is safe, and paranoia was felt. People were afraid to leave their homes. In a traumatic case such as this, when it occurs within a community and affects many people, professional counselors can provide similar assistance as they would within a natural disaster to those who survived the trauma and to those who were involved in the rescuing of victims. Helping not only the victims, but their families and those who came to the aid of the victims. Assisting the victims to understand the trauma, and learning ways to move past the trauma with coping and other skills. Helping the rescuers to understand they cannot save everyone and they did the best they could—helping them to understand they cannot hold themselves responsible. An example of a personal trauma-causing crisis would be child abuse.

A child victim can be witnesses to violence, be victims of physical or sexual abuse or abused through emotional maltreatment and neglect. Oftentimes the abuse comes from within the child’s home, but, in some cases—such as with this writer’s own children—it can occur in the home of a trusted family friend. When it occurs outside the home, the parents can feel the effect of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) over not being able to protect their own child from harm. When a child witnesses violence or is involved in a traumatic event, their trust and their behaviors are affected. Depending on the type of abuse, and the duration of the abuse, the child will show different signs. In the case of sexual abuse, the child may feel he is betraying the person who abused him, by reporting the abuse, since oftentimes the abuser is someone he trusts and loves. The child may also feel powerless, untrusting, may react outwardly with anger, exhibit sexualized behaviors, be withdrawn from friends and family, or develop eating disorders. Anxiety disorders and PTSD, along with suicidal ideation may be present as well. Children who have suffered physical abuse are less likely to be attached to their parents and may be fearful of family interactions.

They may develop anger issues in the future and could possibly become abusers to their own children. Some signs of physical abuse can be dangerous behaviors towards themselves and violence towards others, and may have ADHD, depression and/or conduct disorders and high levels of anxiety. A good sign for counselors to watch for is how the child interacts with other children—oftentimes, an abused child may resolve issues through violence and aggression, which is a behavior oftentimes learned from a trusted adult. When working with victims of abuse, it is important for the counselor to allow the child to move at her own pace and not push her to speak until ready. The counselor should not angrily place blame on the perpetrator—since oftentimes this is person the child loves and respects.

The counselor, when dealing with the rescuer, can help that person realize that the world is not full of evil, and not everyone is out to hurt others. Help the rescuer to realize that there are safe places—which is what helped this writer to deal with the trauma of her own children’s abuse.

Effects Trauma Can Have on Mental Health Counselors

There is an increase in the amount of times mental health counselors are being asked to assist those who are survivors of man-made and natural disasters. In the past, counselors would provide services to victims on an individual basis, but now counselors are actually seeking out the victims rather then wait for them to seek treatment on their own. Secondary trauma stress (STS) and vicarious trauma (VT) can occur to professional mental health providers due to their helping of victims. Dingman and Ginter (1995) stated that proactive efforts on the part of mental health professionals can reduce symptoms of mental illness, and divert the survivor’s and rescuer’s attempts at suicide. Vicarious trauma and Secondary Traumatic stress can have a detrimental effect on the mental health counselor who are aiding the victims. The mental health counselor’s personal feelings of safety can be altered, which may affect the counselors’ ability to help others. In order to help avoid suffering from STS or VT, it is important the counselor learns how to disengage from the client.

Counselor’s Role
Counselors teach coping skills to people who suffer from symptoms of stress and of anxiety, provide immediate crisis intervention and monitor victims for long-term damage to the individuals and within the affected community. Coping skills being taught to the trauma victims help decrease the effects of the trauma and help the victim return to stable mental health. In the case of a man-made or natural disaster, counselors “help normalize emotions under the circumstances, assist in creating safe situations, and watch for warning signs of trauma related stress (Baldwin, 2012; Dingman & Ginter, 1995). Mental health professionals provide counseling to the rescuer and relief workers as well as the individuals.

The mental health counselor must understand that the form of abuse the child has suffered and the duration of the abuse will affect the level of suffering of the child. In order to treat a child victim of abuse, the counselor must be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of the abuse—oftentimes the victim himself will not reveal the level of abuse due to personal shame or trying to protect the abuser. The abuse can affect the child for the rest of their lives, and counselors who work with these children need to help the victims to understand the damages they have incurred and help them to heal so they do not suffer for the remainder of their lives. Vicarious Trauma / Secondary Traumatic Stress

Vicarious trauma occurs when therapists, after engagement with traumatized clients, begin to feel or experience indirectly, the trauma the client experienced. Those who view graphic and/or traumatic material regularly can also suffer from vicarious trauma. The symptoms experienced is considered to be a form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Repeated exposure to the traumatic events of clients can change the way counselors see their own lives, other people and the world they live in. Counselors may start to doubt their own personal safety and may begin to experience fear surrounding the safety of their own children and families. They may take extreme measures to help alleviate the fear through self-defense courses, carrying rape whistles or getting a gun after working with victims of sexual assault or extreme trauma. Those who work with child victims may begin to shelter their own children and be overly cautious with allowing their children outside to play or to attend playdates in a friend’s home. Counselors who live a balanced lifestyle involving self-care can lessen the effects of VT. The article by Cummins, Massey and Jones, discussed options for counselor’s self-care which can aid in helping to avoid VT. A good strategy is one referred to as FAMILY Self-care Assessment Inventory,
contains six scales to help counselors assess his own self-care behavior—these include: “Fitness, Adaptability, Moving through Loss, Independence, Longevity and Motivation.” These individual scales are based on a person’s areas of vulnerability, and helps a counselor assess how well he is able to manage stress, offer and receive emotional support, deal with personal loss and personal spiritual faith. Other ways to assist in vicarious trauma avoidance was found in an article by Mathieu which defined self-care tips to avoid compassion fatigue. There are 12 tips mentioned starting with advising the counselor to identify problems as well as list all the personal demands. Finding personal time each day to relax, as well as creating a self-care idea collection and asking others for help were additional tips mentioned. The article stated another way to help avoid vicarious trauma for the counselor is to create a transitional time between work and home to decompress and try and put the day’s events from the mind. The article also mentions the counselor needs to learn how to say yes or no without guilt—to avoid taking on too much and adding additional stress. The counselor should also routinely assess the amount of trauma inputs being experienced, from actual clients’ discussions to pictures and reading of stories. Trying to filter intake is important in avoiding vicarious trauma. Educating oneself on vicarious trauma and its signs, getting involved in support groups, exercise and attending workshops are also good practices for the mental health professional.

Cummins, P.N., Massey, L., & Jones, A. (2007). Keeping Ourselves Well: Strategies for Promoting and Maintaining Counselor Wellness. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education & Development, 46(1), 35-49 Dingman, R. L., & Ginter, E. J. (1995). Disasters and crises: The role of mental health counseling. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 17(3), 259. Accessed online: Mathieu, F., (2007). Transforming Compassion Fatigue into Compassion Satisfaction: Top 12 Self-Care Tips for Helpers. Workshops for Helping Professions Compassion Fatigue Solutions. Accessed online: Morello, C., Davenport, C. and Harris, H. (2002).


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