Article Published: 8/23/2023
Vicarious trauma is a risk that faces most counselors. For supervisors, there is the added possibility of it affecting a supervisee. Addressing vicarious trauma in supervisees can pose an important challenge for supervisors. For advice and tips on this issue, we turned to counselors Samara Richmond, PhD, NCC, LCPC, LGPC; Amber Samuels, PhD, NCC, LGPC (DC), CCC; and Elizabeth Crunk, PhD, NCC, LGPC. As experienced researchers regarding this phenomenon, they authored the journal article “Vicarious Grief in Supervision: Considerations for Doctoral Students Supervising Counselors-in-Training.” For more about that related topic, you can read the article in The Professional Counselor.
What is vicarious trauma?
Richmond: Vicarious trauma is the emotional or psychological impact experienced by mental health or other helping professionals from repeated or prolonged exposure to clients’ trauma-related stories. The impact of vicarious trauma can be noticed as emotional dysregulation, an altered view of self or the world, or other psychological changes consistent with trauma.
How might you recognize vicarious trauma in yourself or a supervisee?
Crunk: In yourself or a supervisee, you might notice a range of emotional or physiological responses, such as increased emotional dysregulation or reactivity, emotional numbness, more frequent dissociation, or stronger emotional reactions to clinical information during supervision or while working directly with clients. You might notice yourself or your supervisee experiencing compassion fatigue, having diminished interest in work, describing feeling disconnected from work with clients, or more frequent physical illness. You may also notice yourself or your supervisee experiencing changes in emotionality, perspective, or engagement outside of work or in personal relationships.
As a supervisor, how should you address vicarious trauma in yourself?
Richmond: The most important step is the first—recognizing and acknowledging you are experiencing vicarious trauma. This is why supervision, professional consultation with other licensed mental health professionals, and seeking one’s one therapy remains important even when you are in a supervisory role. It can be hard to always notice these reactions or changes within yourself, but a colleague, mentor, supervisor, or personal therapist can help you in identifying the changes brought on by vicarious trauma, so you are then better able to care for yourself, fulfill your role as supervisor for other practitioners, and provide effective client care.
How should you address vicarious trauma in a supervisee?
Richmond: When thinking about a supervisee possibly experiencing vicarious trauma, it is important to consider the roles a supervisor embodies within the supervisory relationship. As a counselor, teacher, and consultant, the supervisor aims to encourage openness and curiosity about personal feelings that emerge through work with clients, provide opportunities for learning about client care and self-care, and foster the autonomy of the supervisee. In the case of a supervisee experiencing vicarious trauma, this may look like creating opportunities in supervision to name and process changing feelings or beliefs that are emerging for the supervisee, informing and educating the supervisee about vicarious trauma as a response to extended time spent working with clients experiencing trauma, and supporting the supervisee in exploring what supports they need for themselves and for their work with clients, which might include seeking mental health support from another counselor in addition to processing their vicarious trauma responses in supervision.
How could a counselor’s experience of vicarious trauma affect their clients?
Samuels: When a counselor experiences vicarious trauma, it’s as if they’re experiencing the emotional weight of their clients’ trauma, and that experience can affect how we do our job as counselors. For example, a counselor’s experience of vicarious trauma might lead them to feel overwhelmed during sessions, which could distract them from providing their best support to their clients. It could also leave a counselor feeling more distant or disconnected from their clients because they’re trying to protect themselves from feeling too much, inhibiting their ability to be “present” with clients and demonstrate empathy.
Are there steps you can take to preempt vicarious trauma in your supervisees or yourself?
Samuels: First off, it’s crucial for supervisors and counselors to be aware of the signs of vicarious trauma. Fortunately, there are practices that supervisors and counselors can engage in to address vicarious trauma proactively. Encouraging regular self-assessment and self-reflection, for example, are necessary practices for identifying early signs of vicarious trauma. Another way to preempt vicarious trauma is to establish and maintain a supportive supervision environment where supervisees can openly talk about their feelings and concerns. Encouraging supervisees to take time for themselves; prioritize self-care; talk about their feelings; and seek support from colleagues, peers, or their own counselor can make a huge difference. Practices like this can promote emotional processing, prevent compassion fatigue or burnout, and mitigate the risk of vicarious trauma.
Vicarious grief is a distinct issue in supervision. Is it less known or understood?
Samuels: Vicarious grief is an issue that has received less attention compared to vicarious trauma, yet I would argue it holds equal importance in the counseling profession. Unlike vicarious trauma, which we know focuses on the emotional impact of exposure to traumatic events, vicarious grief relates to counselors experiencing grief related to their clients’ losses. Even though the phenomenon is not as widely acknowledged, I think its recognition is growing due to its relevance in understanding counselors’ emotional responses within therapeutic relationships and growing societal recognition of grief as a universal and natural emotional response that shares features of, but is distinct from, depression and post-traumatic stress.
Do the same practices for avoiding or addressing vicarious trauma also apply to vicarious grief, or are there additional actions supervisors should take?
Crunk: Many of the practices for addressing vicarious trauma can be helpful for vicarious grief too. Practices like self-care and encouraging emotional processing are important for both. There aren’t yet established “best practices” exclusively dedicated to vicarious grief, but there are actions supervisors can take to attend to vicarious grief during supervision. For example, engaging in reflective discussions on client losses and supervisees’ emotional responses to them during supervision, as well as normalizing grief as a natural response to processing loss—their own losses and those of others—can aid in processing vicarious grief. Staying on top of the research that addresses vicarious grief as well as participating in training and workshops in this area are important practices as well.
Elizabeth Crunk, PhD, NCC, LGPC, is a mental health counselor, educator, and researcher in private practice in Washington, D.C. Dr. Crunk specializes in diverse aspects of adult grief and loss and life transitions, including anticipatory grief, complications in grieving, relationship loss, family estrangement, and job loss. Prior to transitioning to private practice, Dr. Crunk served as assistant professor of counseling at The George Washington University and is a past president of the European Branch of the American Counseling Association. She has published over a dozen peer-reviewed, scholarly papers and is a frequent presenter on diverse issues in grief and loss, mental health, and counselor education.
Samara Richmond, PhD, NCC, LCPC, LGPC, is a psychotherapist and researcher working in private practice in Washington, D.C. Dr. Richmond specializes in the intersections of physical health and mental health, bringing together her training in mental health counseling, counselor education, and complementary and alternative medicine. She focuses her clinical work and research around aspects of chronic pain/chronic illness, the lived impact of physical health conditions, and the embodied experience of pain and illness.
Amber M. Samuels, PhD, NCC, LGPC, CCC, is a clinician, researcher, and educator based in the DMV. Dr. Samuels is currently an assistant professor of counseling at Hood College. Prior to Hood, she served as the assistant director of training of the Community Counseling Services Center (CCSC), staff clinical supervisor, and professional lecturer in counseling at The George Washington University. Dr. Samuels centers her teaching, research, and practice around the mental health needs of people in the margins. She currently provides counseling to adults and adolescents in private practice. Dr. Samuels has presented at local, regional, and national counseling conferences. She aims to train professional counselors who are culturally responsive, socially just, and compassionate.
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