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Understanding, preventing, and relieving vicarious trauma is both an individual and organizational challenge, for coalitions as well as the member programs we serve. Working with trauma survivors, directly or indirectly, exposes us to the reality of violence in ways that other services, including other types of counseling or advocacy do not. The weight of the work we do affects us in many ways, including our sense of safety, trust in self and others, self-esteem, ability to connect with others, and sense of control (Schauben & Frazier, 1995; Trippany, et al., 2004). Taking care of ourselves while taking care of others allows us to “contribute to our society with such impact that we will leave a legacy informed by our deepest wisdom and greatest gifts instead of burdened with our struggles and despairs” (van Dernoot Lipsky, 2009). Current research on vicarious trauma examines the effects on direct service providers, so little is known about how vicarious trauma manifests for those providing indirect services, like coalitions.

Our daily work is centered on the trauma of sexual violence, and thus, it is important for us to be aware of and work to mitigate vicarious trauma. Even though many coalition staff members do not interact with individual survivors in the same way that local programs do, we are still exposed to traumatic material and the risk of vicarious trauma. At many coalitions, there are staff members who do provide direct services to survivors, through such services as legal assistance or facilitation of a statewide hotline. Survivors often call coalitions for support, oftentimes in search of local resources or to seek assistance when their situation is too complex for their local program, or they have a connection or barrier to that program.

Focus on vicarious trauma is still relatively new across the anti-violence field, and has been slower to develop within coalitions. As one coalition staff person explained, we don’t yet have “a good understanding of how working on the issues (even if not in direct contact) and hearing stories impacts us.”

The Resource Sharing Project conducted a survey of coalitions about exposure to and experience of vicarious trauma. We examined several questions:

  • How does vicarious trauma affect coalition staff?
  • Is vicarious trauma different for coalition staff who have done direct service before and those who have not? Is it different for those currently doing direct service in their work at the coalition?
  • How is vicarious trauma different for coalition staff than it is for local program staff?
  • What are staff members doing for self-care? What are coalitions doing to support self-care?
  • Are coalitions using trauma-informed supervision?

Forty-six coalition employees responded to the survey. More than one quarter of respondents currently provide some form of direct service in their work at the coalition, mostly in legal services or staffing a resource line or crisis line. Over three quarters have provided direct services in the past. Many people noted that their coalition receives calls from survivors who are looking for information or resources, need support in a crisis, or need coalition intervention due to conflict with a local program or other service provider. For many coalitions, answering these calls is not a task formally assigned, but something everyone helps with. Along with this direct contact with survivors, coalitions provide invaluable technical assistance and emotional support to local programs, leading to what one survey respondent described as “tertiary trauma,” the stress and vicarious trauma that comes from “helping the helpers.”

Several important themes emerged in the survey data on how vicarious trauma affects coalitions: the nature of our interactions with survivors, doing macro-level work, and the nature of our support to local programs. This paper will also explore how vicarious trauma affects coalitions differently than local programs, whether past direct service experience influences current vicarious trauma in coalition work, the organizational culture, and vicarious resilience. The real experiences of coalition staff members provide insight into understanding vicarious trauma at the coalition level, and all quotes (unless attributed to an author) throughout this paper are taken directly from survey respondents.

Continue reading the full report in the attached pdf.

Also, check out the shorter piece on organizational strategies that work to alleviate vicarious trauma at coalitions.