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Revisiting Secondary Traumatic Stress


May 2, 2016
By Stephanie Conn

689 words – MR

Revisiting secondary traumatic stress

Hearing first responders speak of experiences with trauma and its aftermath at the Canadian Critical Incident Stress Foundation (CCISF) conference in Niagara Falls inspired me to revisit the topic of my introductory column – secondary traumatic stress.

Everyone is familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), operational stress injuries (OSI) and what is referred to as “primary” traumas, where the event involves a threat to a police officer’s safety. This distinct event is easier to identify as the source of one’s traumatic reactions and might even involve a public acknowledgement such as a debriefing or contact by a peer support team member. There is also usually a formal provision of support.

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On the other hand, secondary traumatic stress is insidious. As such, there won’t likely be any formal acknowledgment or provision of support because it is a daily occurrence. In fact, the opposite may occur.

If you attended traumatic calls with colleagues, which is usually the case, others may question how you developed a stress reaction while others did not. You may even question this yourself. The person who has a reaction to the call is accused of being “weak”, “off-duty mad” or blaming personal issues on work.

There’s several problems with this rationale. The most glaring is the assumption that others are not affected because they haven’t yet said anything. They are much less likely to speak up after hearing that a colleague is being judged and blamed, inadvertently reinforcing the false assumption that only one person was affected by the calls. Even if the first person isn’t blamed, others affected may remain silent for any number of reasons – fear of losing desirable assignments, promotion, pride and so forth.

The second problem in blaming the person who reported being affected is that no two officers ever attend the exact same calls. Even if they are both at the same incident, other factors affect trauma. An accident scene may remind one officer of a previous call’s prolonged exposure to a victim, for example.

Worse yet, the victim may have resembled a significant person in the officer’s life, increasing the psychological strain of the call. Further complicating matters, problems in others areas of life – family, health, financial – would make this officer more vulnerable to being affected by a difficult call.

In short, the factors of the call (duration and intensity of contact with the victim, relatability, history of calls of this nature) interact with personal factors (personal and professional trauma history, health, presence/absence of personal issues and support) to determine the effect. No two officers will have the same reaction to the same call.

Continuous exposure to the suffering of others, an integral part of policing, can slowly take a toll on your wellbeing. Like poison, small, constant doses of others’ suffering can make you sick. You won’t know why you’re sick and may even feel your symptoms are “normal” because they appeared so gradually. Symptoms such as difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, changes in your belief system relating to self-concept, others and the world in general and a desire to “tune out” by drinking alcohol, shopping, staying busy or remaining glued to the television, to name a few.

You may find yourself thinking about difficult calls, crime victims and the horrors of accident scenes when you are “tuned in” to your mind. You might notice tension in your body when you tune into it. This is why many people find ways to tune out. The problem is that you can’t run fast enough to outrun your problems. Like your shadow, they’re always right behind you.

Instead, acknowledge that you are having a normal reaction to traumatic events and that your body is telling you to deal with it. Talking with a professional helps. You can unload the burden you have been carrying and find ways to manage your reactions to previous and ongoing experiences of trauma.

Secondary traumatic stress does not have to evolve to the status of “disorder” before you get support. You wouldn’t wait until you got a cavity to brush your teeth. Your mental health warrants the same level of preventative care.