Staff wellbeing: Support for secondary trauma

Written by: Sophie Howells | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As schools return full-time, secondary trauma is a real and present danger for teachers and other staff. Sophie Howells from Education Support explains

Secondary trauma can happen when the act of supporting a traumatised or troubled young person becomes traumatic in itself.

This is something that is a constant threat for teachers and school staff (SecEd, 2018), and as schools return full-time after the Covid-19 lockdown it is perhaps even more of a danger.

If for example, a student or colleague has been through a traumatic event such as losing someone close to Covid-19, teachers may feel the impact of their distress. Or it may be that students have suffered other traumas during lockdown such as abuse or domestic violence – again supporting these young people could affect teachers severely.

The best way to prepare for the potential of secondary trauma is, in the first instance, for individuals and schools to be aware of it and to be able to spot the signs that they or colleagues may be experiencing it. Then potential sufferers must be able to seek help and know where to get support. School staff will need to be able to practise self-care to manage the possible effects of these experiences.

The pandemic has exacerbated the amount of trauma those in education are having to support and deal with. In a new film, produced by Education Support, psychotherapist Ben Amponsah discusses secondary trauma and offers ways that education professionals can both spot and deal with it.

Secondary trauma can be summed up, the film explains, as the cumulative effect on the educator. It causes symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including having “flashbacks” and repeating the traumatic experience over and over again.

It may result in sufferers avoiding certain scenarios or situations that could remind them of what they have been told or the experiences they have supported students through. It can cause negative changes in beliefs and feelings which can lead to anxiety and depression.

Another issue is what is known as “hyper arousal” – a feeling of always being alert, when the smallest thing is able to set you on edge.

Other signs that a staff member may be struggling with secondary trauma include compassion fatigue, which refers to the reduced ability to be able to provide support. The sufferer may have been exposed to too many difficult situations and as such feels numb and less able to empathise.

Burn-out is another sign. Probably the most commonly associated with education, it tends to come on more gradually and is the result of accumulated stress.

It is important that all staff are aware of what they can do if they spot signs in themselves or others. Where schools provide a counselling service or employee assistance programme for example, these should be highlighted and given recognition by school leaders. Psychological first aid training may also improve awareness of what to look out for and how to help.

In his video, Ben also emphasises the importance of the three “Rs” of self-care:

  • Restorative self-care in dealing with trauma – keeping yourself physically healthy and so better able to deal with emotional stress.
  • Recreational self-care – planning and taking part in communal activities, meeting friends, holidays and meeting up online.

Recuperative self-care through talking to those close to you, reading and other mindful activities.

Importantly, and positively, many who have been through secondary trauma discover that it has led to enhanced relationships, appreciating the value of these relationships more highly, reprioritising what is important in life, as well as feeling stronger and more resilient.

Knowing how to spot the signs and being aware of ways to deal with it is important for us all. The most important message is to recognise the signs and seek support.

  • Sophie Howells is from Education Support, a UK charity dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of the education workforce.

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