George Johnson Education Centre

Part of SESN

Self-Care and Secondary Traumatic Stress

Self-Care and Secondary Traumatic Stress

Richard Bell

1st November 2018

It can be really difficult for teachers, pastoral staff and other educational staff to set aside self-care when the majority of their time is dedicated to those who really need their continual support and engagement.


Educators often find themselves supporting young people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences and staff are required to develop the right skills, knowledge and empathetic engagement with trauma survivors. With this comes an increasing need to understand ways in which student trauma can have an affect on our education professionals.


Continually hearing difficult, upsetting stories of hardship and supporting recovery and offering effective intervention can develop 'Secondary Traumatic Stress' also called 'Vicarious Trauma' or 'Compassion Fatigue'. It can be summarised as 'the natural behaviours and emotions that arise from knowing about a traumatising event experienced by a significant other – the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person’ (Figley et al, 1995, Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder In Those Who Treat the Traumatized, New York: Brunner/Mazel)


Experiences likely to induce STS can include hearing of an individual’s experience; the disclosure of details; identifying with a witness; and/or proximity to the trauma. Left unaddressed, the cumulative effect can seriously affect health, potentially manifesting as secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD). 


Staff may show signs of stress, fatigue, feeling irritable, feeling guilty about not doing enough and/or struggling to concentrate. These symptoms can mirror those of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Staff may recognise their cumulative symptoms, but do not necessarily link it with working with challenging, traumatised children.


Many staff in schools do not eat well during their day or hydrate themselves effectively. Working late hours and not prioritising sleep will only add to fatigue and an inability to heal and deal with ongoing stress, but can also cause increased errors and poor judgement which could potentially put young people at further risk. When this begins to take its toll on a day to day basis it can create a perpetual sense of failure which prevents us from establishing a productive approach to supporting the trauma and difficulties our students come to us to seek guidance on. We are lead to believe that suppressing our own emotions and weaknesses is a form of professionalism rather than being unhealthy and ineffective.


At home we should be strict in setting aside time for ourselves, but unfortunately many sacrifice their own health and well-being to focus on the needs of others, which inadvertently make us less effective in what we are actually aiming to achieve.


We should become more aware of our own needs by becoming more self-observant. This can be done by recording continual signs of stress and burnout. Dedicate time to hobbies or outside interests. Be realistic about what we can achieve. Do not take on all the responsibility for your student's well-being and in some cases the students' family too. Continually seek social support from colleagues or family and friends.


School leaders have a duty of care for their staff and should support their staff by offering professional development around self-care and mindfulness. Allowing time for staff to discuss and reflect on their experiences and the trauma they have taken on should be provided. Developing a trauma informed environment will allow schools to focus on fostering a supportive caring culture, training their entire staff to recognise and support students with trauma. By developing this culture centered on supporting the emotional care and well-being of students, trauma-informed schools, by their nature, foster communities where educators have the understanding and tools to recognise and address STS in themselves and each other.


By looking after ourselves and becoming more aware of STS we can offer more effective support to those young people who have or are suffering trauma.