One of the most remarkable abilities that humans have is the capacity for empathy. For individuals working or volunteering in the field of gender-based violence, empathy is a key factor in providing proper support and comfort to survivors. But while a strong sense of empathy can have many benefits, it can have certain drawbacks as well.
Anti-violence workers or volunteers who engage with survivors of trauma, whether directly or indirectly, can experience negative impacts on their own mental health and well-being. This is called vicarious trauma, and it arises from having prolonged exposure to the pain of others. The effects from being a witness to others’ traumatic experiences can, over time, cause a shift in one’s own worldview and even produce symptoms that mimic those of someone who experienced the trauma directly. These symptoms can include feelings of hopelessness, irritability, difficulty sleeping, intrusive thoughts, maladaptive coping behaviours such as increased substance use or anxiety.
Despite this, many anti-violence workers often call their work “rewarding” and “inspiring”, and that is largely due to vicarious resilience. Vicarious resilience occurs when witnessing another person’s resilience and strength in turn promotes resilience and strength in the self. For example, an anti-violence worker can experience vicarious trauma after being continuously exposed to stories of trauma from survivors of violence. However, seeing those survivors heal and take back their lives can also foster vicarious resilience in the worker, and can even allow them to view their own problems and anxieties in a new, more positive light.
It is important to note that not all anti-violence workers experience vicarious trauma and that those that do experience it to varying degrees depending on a number of personal and environmental factors. Still, there are many ways that gender-based violence organizations can mitigate the risks of vicarious trauma and promote vicarious resilience in their anti-violence workers or volunteers.
How to mitigate employees/volunteers' risk of vicarious trauma
- Regularly meet with all staff and volunteers to learn from the resilience of survivors by reading personal memoirs, watching videos, and inviting survivors to speak.
- Develop a peer mentor program amongst staff and volunteers with a focus on discussions about fostering hope, finding meaning in the work, and regular de-briefing.
- Offer opportunities for “check-ins” in individual or group meetings while making space for individuals to reach out and seek support on their own terms.
- Provide targeted skills-building training (e.g., setting boundaries, recognizing the potential impacts of trauma).
- Validate the challenging nature of the work and highlight various ways that anti-violence workers continue to resist social injustices and engage in collective advocacy.
In the words of Dr. Shobana Powell, “If we ignore the pain of vicarious trauma and the power of vicarious resilience, the cycle and chaos of trauma can become embedded in the culture of our organizations and movements.” Having avenues for open communication, as well as opportunities for skills-building training, can help ensure that anti-violence workers have the tools they need to deal with vicarious trauma, and feel empowered to voice their needs and concerns to their supervisors when they need to.
Violence Against Women Learning Network: Issue 36: Revisiting Vicarious Trauma In Gender-based Violence Work: Opportunities For Fostering Vicarious Resilience & Collective Wellbeing
American Counseling Association: Vicarious Trauma