Countertransference, Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Vicarious Traumatization

In previous weeks of this course, you explored many major aspects of crisis and intervention including the scope of crisis; skills, strategies, and models of intervention; the characteristics and nuances of crises affecting individuals, couples, families, and systems; and the collaborative nature of crisis intervention. Until now, your primary focus has been on the intricacies of how to help others experiencing a crisis. All too often, however, this unwavering focus on helping others cope with crises can lead human services professionals to their own personal and professional crises. In some cases, this can take the form of countertransference, in which human services professionals attribute their own personal experiences, feelings, or behaviors to the client they are treating. For example, a human services professional who felt guilty and inadequate for not being able to spend more time with a terminally ill family member in the past might find these feelings of guilt and inadequacy resurfacing during therapy sessions with a terminally ill client. Countertransference is especially common when human services professionals engage in intense therapy sessions with clients about highly sensitive topics such as abuse and suicide ideation.

In other cases, human services professionals may find themselves struggling with secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD), also referred to as compassion fatigue. Secondary traumatic stress disorder is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like a sufferer of PTSD, a human services professional afflicted with STSD might experience recurrent nightmares of traumatic events, flashbacks, intense physical reactions to external cues reminiscent of the events, and feelings of numbness or detachment in their everyday lives. The difference is that these symptoms are due not to the direct experience of the traumatic events, but rather to secondary exposure to these events via conversations and interactions with clients who have experienced them.

Related to STSD is the phenomenon of vicarious traumatization. With vicarious traumatization, human services professionals experience fundamental, long-term, potentially permanent changes in their psyches and worldview as a result of working with survivors of crisis. Human services professionals may display the symptoms of an individual who has experienced a trauma although they, in fact, have been exposed to it only through the relating of these traumatic events to them by clients.

It is not difficult to understand why human services professionals working with crisis and intervention may be especially vulnerable to countertransference, STSD, and vicarious traumatization. Professionals who choose these specialties tend to be (and in fact need to be) extremely empathic, compassionate, and caring individuals. At the same time, these qualities can make human services professionals extremely susceptible to and overwhelmed by the profound emotions inevitably provoked by the tragic and heartbreaking situations they encounter.

To prepare for this Discussion:

  • Review Chapter 16 in your course text, Crisis Intervention Strategies, focusing on how and why countertransference, secondary traumatic stress disorder, and vicarious traumatization occur. Also take note of the characteristics of each phenomenon, as well as the consequences that can occur when human services professionals experience them.
  • Review the article, “Emotional Exhaustion and Turnover Intention in Human Service Occupations: The Protective Role of Coworker Support,” paying particular attention to the factors and situations that lead to emotional exhaustion.
  • Reflect on the different settings in which human services professionals who specialize in crisis and intervention might work: domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, rape crisis centers, natural/human-made disaster aid centers, crisis/suicide hotlines, substance abuse rehabilitation facilities, or any other specific setting you have studied throughout this course. Choose one setting and consider the types of events and client interactions that might occur over time that could lead a human services professional within this setting to experience one of the following: countertransference, secondary traumatic stress disorder, or vicarious traumatization.
  • Consider the characteristics that a human services professional experiencing countertransference, secondary traumatic stress disorder, or vicarious traumatization within this setting might display. In addition, think about the consequences of this for both the human services professional and his or her clients.

    With these thoughts in mind:

    Post by Wednesday 5/17/17 a 300-word response to the following: a brief description of the setting you selected and the various events and/or client interactions that might cause a human services professional within this setting to experience one of the following: countertransference, secondary traumatic stress disorder, or vicarious traumatization. Then describe at least three specific characteristics the human services professional might display when experiencing the associated phenomenon (countertransference, STSD, or vicarious traumatization) in this setting. Finally, explain the consequences of this phenomenon for both the human services professional and his or her clients in this setting. Be specific.

    Answer all components in the post as there are usually several. These can serve as your headings in APA format. Using these headings will help keep your paper organized, ensure you cover all objectives, and enhance readability. You may find that if you bullet-point these requirements and refer to them as you write, you will address all of the portions of the question.