On Secondary Trauma

The other day I had to go to a mental health training session for work.  Like with most training-type things, I was a little grumpy about the idea of doing it, mostly because it was scheduled to happen during one of my planning periods, and like most teachers I tend to guard my non-classroom time jealously.  The only real saving grace in this instance was that it happened to be scheduled on the day of the week where, through a peculiarity in the way my school structures the class schedule, I get about three hours during which I’m not teaching.  It wasn’t a big deal for me to spend an hour and a half in a training session, especially on a topic where I generally have a strong interest.

The training was part of a series we’re receiving this year on topics in mental health (after five years in my last job where supporting students with severe mental health needs was a major part of my duties, this sort of training is right up my alley) with a focus on secondary trauma as it applies to educators and other children’s service professionals.

It’s worth taking some time here to explain what secondary trauma is.  When we talk about trauma, we typically discuss it as manifesting in terms of events that happen to a person.  Various forms of abuse and violence are described as traumatic because the victim is forced to experience something that’s mentally, emotionally, or physically distressing.  These are primary traumas.  Though perhaps not as extreme as the cases we always jump to when we typically discuss trauma, everyone experiences some kind of trauma in the course of their lives.  A really common one is the death of a loved one; humans die, and humans form relationships with other humans, and inevitably those two facts intersect.

The idea with secondary trauma is that exposure to the traumas of other people can induce similar physiological reactions for people who didn’t experience the trauma directly.  Instead of being affected by direct exposure to violence or abuse, it’s possible for people who hear about these events and engage empathetically with survivors of them to experience their own symptoms of distress.  My understanding from the training was that this experience isn’t on the same level as post traumatic stress disorder, but the reactions are real, and they do have an impact on a person’s mental health.

Okay, anecdote time.

I don’t know that I’ve discussed it very much in this space aside from a couple of general announcement posts about my transition from one job to another, but I have felt so much happier in my new workplace these last few months.  My regular refrain to my coworkers whenever something irritating happens in the room is, “This isn’t as bad as what I dealt with at my old job.”  I had a student ask me after a rough class period (they still happen, even with normal kids) how I remain so chill despite disruptions, and all I could tell him was that I’ve had much worse classes.  Working in a school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders for so long gave me a lot of perspective, and my transition to a regular high school has felt so much less stressful because of it.

The flip side of this perspective is that I saw and heard about a lot of terrible stuff at my old job.  The first year I taught, one of our students murdered a man during a home robbery; the second, one of my former students was killed in a traffic accident during the first month of school; the third, another student died over spring break after asphyxiating in his sleep; the fourth, I saw the fallout of multiple students losing parents and grandparents.  Those are just the major events that come to mind while I’m sitting at my desk writing; there are many more minor incidents and stories that filtered from students to me and my coworkers.  During my time there I realized that it was sort of a rite of passage that you picked up a story about a kid that you worked with that shook you.  Most of the long timers had at least one story about a kid that they’d loved but who hadn’t made it.

It’s a high risk population.

Anyway, going back to the trauma training, as I was listening to the presenter talk to us about how secondary trauma tends to manifest, I got to thinking about my time at my old job.  It was always a difficult environment to work in, but there was a definite downward arc to my attitude the longer I was there.  Six months after leaving, I’m pretty comfortable with admitting that I suffered some major burnout in my last year there.  Part of that is normal professional exhaustion, and part of it is just all the stuff that I carried around from my students.  I worked with a lot of kids who had been through, forgive me, some heavy shit, and I don’t think I ever realized how much constant exposure to that dragged me down.

With the secondary trauma training, I started to wonder if this was something that I had experienced.  I looked at a list of symptoms associated with secondary trauma, and I had to admit to myself that towards the end of my tenure at my old job I had experienced several of them.  I’ve always been introverted, but I tended towards being asocial much of the time, even with my closest friends.  I felt physically tired frequently.  I tend much more strongly toward cynicism in my thought patterns that I used to.  I didn’t derive the usual satisfaction from my creative outlets.  I developed a low-level dread of just interacting with my students.

There are certainly other complicating factors here.  People in my family are prone to depression, and as I’m getting older I’m learning to be more aware of my own mental health.  This year has been hard on a lot of people, especially with the interminable American presidential election (God, please let it be over when this post goes up).  The vulgarian has coarsened political discussion this year so much that people are reporting higher incidences of anxiety and depression; women report that he’s a pervasive trigger for their experiences of sexual assault and abuse (and if you scoff at the idea of triggers, please remember that we’re talking about an uncontrollable physiological reaction to a specific stimulus).  But that doesn’t change the fact that I saw an upswing in my mental health after I started my new job.  That’s not nothing.

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One thought on “On Secondary Trauma

  1. This makes a lot of sense, Jason, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about too. I am SO much happier being away from what I dealt with for 10 years including the dishonesty, disrespect, and very poor business practices. I used to spend my days angry, agitated, depressed, and, to use the clinical term, bitchy. Getting away from that, along with being allowed to spend the last 6 months of my Mother’s life with her, tells me that the universe has a way of knowing what’s best and pushing us in the right direction (no matter how much we may not want to go). Thanks for another insightful blog.

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