Article Published: 12/14/2022
The effects of trauma can extend far beyond individuals who have been directly traumatized, resulting in what is referred to as “secondary trauma.” Whether trauma has been caused by the actions of another person or group of people, or a natural disaster, these experiences can cause a ripple effect, causing feelings of fear or helplessness that may be difficult for others in affected communities to process, including counselors, first responders, medical professionals, and others.
Trauma experienced by others can leave those who want to support them feeling overwhelmed. For counselors who work with trauma survivors, it may also result in compassion fatigue or burnout.
Jamal Boudion, MA, NCC, PLPC, of Westwego, Louisiana, shared his thoughts about the effects of trauma on communities and individuals, including counselors working with traumatized clients, and offered some special considerations for building trust and making a positive impact during difficult times.
How do major traumatic cultural events impact their respective communities?
Major traumatic cultural events can impact communities in a plethora of ways, including mental health decline, physical illness, concerns with substance abuse, the broken and disjointed family structure, as well as diminished community support. Additionally, the trauma can be pathologized from generation to generation.
How can counselors best navigate that with their clients?
Counselors can navigate by being culturally competent, while understanding and acknowledging that marginalized cultures in our society have different experiences than the majority. Also, counselors should be respectful of social standards, traditions, customs, and even perceptions. Counselors should check their individual and implicit biases, and not impose particular views on the client, as their perception is their reality. For some counselors it would be helpful to understand how their own biased views dictate their interactions with some of their clients.
How can counselors create a safe place for clients to process these major traumatic cultural events?
Firstly, counselors can practice inclusivity by creating a sense of welcoming and belonging. They can build genuine trust with the client, providing a space for them to talk and be heard. They can listen intently and be respectful of a person’s rights and their dignity. Counselors can also use their interactions with their clients as an opportunity to learn. Lastly, the environment must be warm and inviting, and having staff members reflect the demographic of the clientele creates a bond that does not require words.
How can we respectfully advocate for/support communities and cultural groups experiencing trauma?
We can help the communities and cultural groups to feel empowered to advocate for themselves. We can also speak up in circumstances where a client is the recipient of bias and prejudice. The communities can be informed of their rights and given support in exercising those rights, which will allow the community to become direct stakeholders in decisions that impact or have a significant effect on them.
How is working with someone experiencing secondary trauma different than working with someone who has been directly impacted by an event?
Those with secondary trauma are often compassion fatigue casualties. While they may not have directly experienced the trauma, the exposure to secondhand trauma can create feelings of helplessness, isolation, burnout, and anxiety. Working with someone experiencing secondhand trauma is different in that the focus would be more on prevention strategies like relaxation techniques, managing work/life balance, and being able to set boundaries as well as practice self-care.
What are special considerations?
These considerations can include culturally competent intervention strategies, realizing the worldview of the client may vary from theirs, and having an understanding of what oppression, racism, discrimination, and stereotyping can contribute to a person’s mental health.
How can helping traumatized people affect us as counselors?
Some ways are compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, indirect trauma, empathic strain, burnout, indifference, anger, hopelessness, and irritability. Compassion fatigue can impact your physical health manifesting as hypertension, difficulty concentration and anger. It can open the door to poor coping mechanisms like overeating, substance abuse and drinking if one is not cognizant.
How can secondary trauma impact the way someone views the world, themselves, and others?
Secondary trauma can diminish the perception of safety and trust in the world and others. It can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness, and in the worst cases, it can cause paranoia, cynicism, and/or fear. It can further cause one to isolate to avoid interactions with others on a personal and/or professional level.
What advice would you give to counselors about preparing to talk about these issues with their clients?
Counselors should make sure they have a keen understanding of positive and helpful stereotypes, conscious and unconscious microaggressions, and remove their own opinion and bias from counseling sessions. I would also tell them to make sure they understand the health effects cultural trauma can have on a community, and how privilege and oppression can subconsciously influence their interaction with their clients.
Jamal Boudion, MA, NCC, PLPC, of Westwego, Louisiana, is a doctoral student and practicum and internship graduate assistant in the Department of Counseling and Behavioral Sciences at University of Holy Cross, where he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology and his master’s degree in school counseling. He is a 2022–2023 NBCC Foundation Minority Fellowship Program Doctoral Fellow and a Provisional Licensed Professional Counselor.
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