The Importance of Understanding Trauma-Informed Care and Self-Care for Victim Service Providers

July 30, 2014

If you are reading this, the chances are great that you know from personal experience – as a survivor, as someone who works day in and day out with survivors, as someone who witnessed abuse -   that sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking are deeply traumatic crimes that can cause severe damage to survivors’ emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being. You probably also know that far too many survivors are harmed or retraumatized by insensitive, uninformed, or inadequate community and criminal justice system responses. And, far too often, first responders, including rape crisis counselors, domestic violence advocates, and police officers, are unaware of the impact trauma can have on their own lives. 

At OVW, we know the critical importance of service providers who are trained to recognize and understand the impact of trauma on survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, what is referred to as trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care emphasizes creating services and programs that are sensitive and directly responsive to the trauma that many survivors experience after a violent crime. Trauma-informed care programs identify and limit potential triggers to reduce their retraumatization and protect their mental and emotional health. OVW has a long history supporting a number of trauma-informed care programs that provide culturally and linguistically competent services and a space for healing based on empowerment and hope.

Understanding trauma can be complicated.  For victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, trauma can stem from an isolated incident, from repeated incidents over a lifetime, or from a pattern of ongoing violence.  And, this violence and trauma can be compounded by multi-generational and/or historical trauma. Exposure to “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences” such as colonization, war, or genocide, can magnify an already devastating crime. It is important for services providers to remember that because of historical trauma, many survivors of violent crime, such as those from African American, immigrant and American Indian/Alaska Native communities, are forced to confront multiple layers of traumatic experiences as they recover and heal.

OVW grantees and technical assistance providers are increasing the availability of safe and destigmatizing community and law enforcement programs that are sensitive to trauma. One grantee, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), is using OVW funding to develop and promote a new and innovative course for service providers, “The Brain, Body, and Trauma.” This online course covers the psychological and neurobiological impacts of sexual violence related trauma and gives victim service providers the skills necessary to offer trauma-informed services. OVW also supports trainings and information on supporting survivors recovering from historical trauma. For example, in 2012 OVW’s Tribal Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalitions Grant Program funded 13 trainings for professionals to improve their ability to address historical trauma experienced by American Indian and Alaska Native survivors.

We have also learned that law enforcement is most effective in combating violence against women when officers and staff have been trained to recognize and address the truly devastating mental and emotional trauma that many survivors experience in the aftermath of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. That’s why OVW is proud to support the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to provide law enforcement agencies with on-site Trauma Informed Sexual Assault Investigation trainings. These trainings provide a comprehensive look at how law enforcement agencies can be sensitive to survivors’ needs and avoid retraumatization while employing the most effective methods to investigate crimes. Too often, a lack of understanding about how victims of violence react to trauma leads police officers to wrongly dismiss the accounts of survivors, which is why IACP’s trainings also include detailed lessons on how trauma can negatively impact survivors’ memory, reactions, and demeanor when recounting how they were abused or attacked.

Providing trauma-informed services for survivors highlights the closely related issue of vicarious trauma experienced by many service providers, law enforcement personnel, and others who work with victims and survivors of violence. Vicarious trauma, sometimes called ‘provider fatigue,’ ‘compassion fatigue,’ or ‘secondary trauma,’ has been described as the “experience of having exhausted hearts, minds, bodies, and souls from helping survivors through their painful experiences.” Over the course of months or years the effects of vicarious trauma can accumulate, and, if left unaddressed, can do serious damage to the mental and emotional wellbeing of providers and other who work to support survivors.

As we approach the middle of summer, it is important for all of us who work to support survivors to remember to take time to rest and care for ourselves. Simple and effective self-care strategies are available to address the negative effects of vicarious trauma. These strategies can include steps as simple as setting aside time to read, take a walk, or practice mindful meditation. It is important to remember that taking care of ourselves is not a selfish act; in fact, effectively managing stress can make each of us a more effective caregiver and service provider. If left unaddressed, vicarious trauma can cause severe stress, anxiety, anger, and insomnia, all of which can limit our effectiveness and ability to do our jobs well.   Many people who work on violence against women issues will eventually ‘burn out’ because of poorly managed stress and fatigue, often leaving this line of work, creating critical resource and knowledge gaps in our field. Managing stress and taking care of mental and emotional health is an important investment in our ability to continue to do this vital work over the long-term.

OVW recognizes the importance of self-care for all those who work with survivors, which is why OVW supported the development of information and trainings by technical assistance providers on how service providers can take care of themselves, along with the people they serve. These OVW funded trainings and publications center around simple and effective tools and best practices that both professionals and volunteers can use to manage stress and stay healthy. One OVW grantee, the National Center on Domestic Violence Trauma and Mental Health, will be offering a free webinar on “Caring for Others While Caring for Ourselveson July 30 from 2:00 – 3:30pm (CDT). This webinar will offer strategies for dealing with stress on the job, increasing awareness of the issue of vicarious trauma, and developing organizational support to help sustain and support service providers and caregivers. OVW also supported the development of an online guide on “Self-Care and Trauma Work” by NSVRC. This guide includes the common signs of vicarious trauma and information on how to build workplace cultures that can combat stress.

While we are continually increasing awareness of the traumatic effects of violence on survivors and service providers and the importance of trauma informed care, it is vital to recognize the effect that direct and vicarious trauma can have on all those affected by violent crime. All of us at OVW remain committed to ensuring that support is available for both the survivors of these crimes and the incredible service providers, law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors, and other professionals and volunteers who work to help survivors heal.