Helping Can Hurt

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Four years ago, a valued long-time staff member walked into Dr. Ginny Sprang’s office and announced suddenly that she was quitting. The staff member said her job, which involved reviewing and summarizing child abuse and neglect case files, was ruining her life. She was having nightmares, was overly anxious about her own children’s safety and couldn’t stop thinking about the horrific events in the case files she read each day. Dr. Sprang, the executive director of the Center on Trauma and Children and a professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Kentucky, felt terrible she had not recognized the impact secondary exposure to traumatic events was having on her staff.

More that 60 percent of kids were exposed to violence, close to one-half were assaulted, and 25 percent witnessed an act of violence, according to “the most comprehensive nationwide survey of the incidence and prevalence of children’s exposure to violence to date,” the 2008 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, sponsored by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Victimization is even more common among young people in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, leading to higher rates of traumatic stress. Adolescents involved with the juvenile justice system may be four to eight times more likely than other youth to meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD, according to research summarized in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma in 2008.

For the professionals who work with them, young people’s traumatic experiences can translate to secondary traumatic stress — sometimes called compassion fatigue. One of the early researchers in this field, Dr. Charles Figley, defined secondary traumatic stress as “stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”   

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