A Qualitative Understanding of Trauma From A Helping Professional

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Social Workers often work with trauma survivors and enter into the deepest parts of a victim’s psyches in an effort to help them transcend the often dark and debilitating symptoms which stem from trauma. Social Workers also experience direct and indirect trauma as part of their jobs and yet are often left out of the conversation with other first responders.

Last year, the Province of Ontario in Canada, passed The Supporting First Responders Act, which acknowledges and provides a host of benefits for the high rates of PTSD amongst Police, Fire, and Ambulance personnel. Police officers in Ontario also have the benefit of a five-year earlier retirement benefit due to the toll of their work.

I personally support all benefits for first responders, however, I remain mystified as to how social workers have been left out of this group. It almost seems absurd to have to argue the ways social workers are in fact first responders. One need only to look at the fields of crisis response, critical incident response, child protection, mental health intervention, and the like to realize that most direct practice social workers are in fact employed as first responders.

Many researchers have documented and quantified the nature and degree of trauma in the helping professions, however not as much qualitative research has been done. This is not surprising when one considers the stigma and shame associated with mental illness and especially mental illness among helping professionals.

In my twenty years of experience as a front line social worker in Child Protection, Domestic Violence Services, and School Social Work, I have observed too many times how colleagues have suffered in silence and have often been ostracized due to their struggles.

As a social worker and trauma survivor, I have worked much of my life to understand the impact of trauma on people’s functioning and I have searched far and wide for ways to ameliorate the symptoms which often erode one’s core positive beliefs about the world and about oneself. Stories and narratives about trauma are important and legitimate tools we can use to learn about the intricacies of trauma in people’s lives. As professionals, disclosing one’s story, however, is not encouraged, and helping professionals often suffer in silence.

As professionals, disclosing one’s story is often not encouraged or supported, and helping professionals tend to suffer in silence. Disclosure is scary business, and many social workers fear repercussions such as being viewed as weak, unstable, or unfit to perform our duties.

We feel the stigma that surrounds all mental illness and that serves to perpetuate silence and an ongoing lack of recognition and understanding of the cost of caring. There is a profound lack of ongoing dialogue surrounding the impact of the work we do on our own lives.

Most social workers would not trade or change their careers and lives despite the cost of caring. In fact, there is a core of altruism, dedication, ideology, and core values to improve the lives of others in this world that keeps helping professionals on the job during times of personal pain and suffering. We generally are a group that does not exercise good self-care and the organizations that employ many of us do a dismal job of protecting us and supporting our self-care.

While self-care initiatives exist, they tend to lose focus very quickly and they are not progressive in the sense of using cutting edge strategies to seriously help mitigate that stress that is inherent in our work. One need only look at the tech sector and the organizational and occupation health literature to realize that our work culture continues to be largely punitive based and continues to see employees as needing to be controlled.

Trauma refers to not only full-blown PTSD, but it is also the continuum of symptoms associated with experiencing horrific events – events that overwhelm one’s physiological stress response. A debt of gratitude is owed to the trauma sufferers who have allowed researchers to study and understand trauma which is one of the best understood mental health disorders of our time.

In particular, sexual assault survivors, natural disaster survivors, and veterans have shared their experiences over the last several decades and we must honor them continually. And, last but not least, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD and the PILOTS database must be acknowledged for the research, support, education, and dissemination of information about trauma.

Trauma survivors have the gift of strength and perseverance. I hope it goes without saying that living through and with trauma requires constant effort, energy, and strength. This strength leads to endless opportunities for survivors that can learn to harness their experience and strength toward future goals and achievements. While not always possible for all, finding the gifts and strengths associated with trauma is an area that does not seem to be talked about enough.

My hope is that this article can offer even glimpses of hope to those of you who have experienced trauma and for those of you who offer treatment and compassionate services to victims.

I will not give up strategizing and fighting for change in our organizational and political structures that need to recognize and provide reprieve and benefits to those in our profession who experience trauma like other first responders.

Three Ways to Reduce Power and Privilege

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Pure and honest political conservatism as an ideology is often at the heart of our global problems – it unapologetically promotes privilege. While I might be wrong and certainly will be persecuted for this line, it seems to me that true conservatism is synonymous with privilege.  If we are to save our planet and our people, don’t we need to change our current acceptance of political conservatism?     

If you have followed along to this point, there are logical interventions we can put into place to make sure that we challenge the status quo and ensure we leave our own power and privilege at the door when possible. Social Workers and helping professionals need user-friendly tools to remind us of the foundational elements in any given intervention.

For example, if we are sitting with a client who is accused of or discloses the abuse of power and control against women and children, we have a window of opportunity to present information or introduce interventions to challenge and redirect the client’s path. Are you with me?

In thinking about power and privilege as I do, I came up with the following acronym to remind me of our ethical obligation to challenge privilege and the status quo. A.C.T. is a useful acronym to remember when trying to think about how to combat the structural inequities helping professionals are faced with daily.

A.  ACKNOWLEDGE

Acknowledge represents the foundational best practice of self-awareness and begins at home.  In order to combat privilege and power inequalities at the micro and macro level, we must first be aware of our own histories and privilege before we move forward in challenging privilege in our systems.

If you are a white male, for example, you have privilege. As a helping professional, it is necessary for us to understand our own person-in-society/environment position before we can help others. What do we inherently bring to the table at the outset of any conversation? What is our place in the power hierarchy in relation to our clients? How do we leave, to the extent possible, our power and privilege at the door in order to engage with our clients where they are at? How do we ensure we don’t replicate the power dynamics already impacting our clients?

C. CONVERSE

While for some it may seem overwhelming to challenge social and political systems, it can be done, and it doesn’t need to be complicated.  It starts by having conversations about the privilege you know about which is likely your own. Simply, have conversations about privilege and these conversations will bring more conversations and before you know it people are talking about power and privilege.  Conversations lead to actions and change. Conversations about power and privilege are tied to and link back to our awareness. If we question and analyze our own privilege, we are then able to help others do the same.

T.  TEACH

The next step and sometimes in conjunction with conversations is teaching.  Social workers and helping professionals are the best teachers of structural inequalities and privilege. Teach people through conversations what you know and understand about power, inequality and… you guessed it, privilege.

Our work is inextricably tied to the power structures of our organizations, our communities, and our states and our nations. As Gandhi so eloquently said, “be the change you want to see in your world!” If we desire a more equitable society, we must A.C.T. against power and privilege.

10 Tips to Redefining Your Self-Care

When I talk to clients or participants at trainings I facilitate, friends and others about self-care, there is a resounding and recurring notion that implementing a self-care plan requires a lot of time and money. This isn’t a surprise to me. For years, I also carried this belief. I thought that having extra time and money were key components to maintaining a self-care practice. After all, without time how will you get to do the things you want to do, and without money, how will you finance your self-care activities?

There is also a misconception about what self-care is.  What usually comes up as a definition of self-care is spa days, time at the hair salon on regular basis, gym time and vacation. While all these activities are examples of self-care activities, the reality is that for many people these activities can be outside of their reach. Limiting our self-care definition to just a few select activities can hinder our ability to recharge ourselves.

Despite these beliefs, there is growing general agreement that self-care is essential for our overall well-being. Self-care is an effective way to manage stress and a key factor in keeping healthy physically and mentally. The definition of self-care that I have adopted is that of a practice that allows us to strengthen our bodies, minds, and souls.

The great news is that there are many ways to fulfill this endeavor. There is no one-way of doing it and there isn’t such a thing as one size fits all. Self-care can be practiced as it best fits people’s lifestyles, time and resources. And there are many free things that you can do. So let’s forget those standardized self-care checklists and create your own list based on what works for you.

To help incorporate self-care into our daily lives, I propose that rather than doing self-care as a one-time only extravaganza when we feel burned out, we sprinkle self-care throughout our day or week.

Here are a few ideas how:

Mindfulness Meditation. We can take what I call mini vacations through mindfulness meditation, a practice has been proven effective to reducing stress and preventing and managing mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. There are many types of mindfulness exercises. One such exercise is deep breathing. We can dedicate as little as 5 minutes a day to deep breathing (or as many times as you need it throughout the day). During our breathing exercises, we focus on our breath, inhaling slowly in and out through our nose.

Visualizations. With the deep breathing, we can add visualization, imagining a place that brings us tranquility and peace as we deep breath in and out or a past happy memory. We can do a variation to our breathing exercises reciting positive affirmations about ourselves or reflecting on things that are going right in our lives. But this is just one possible exercise. Mindfulness is much broader than that. As best put by mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in a particular way to what is arising and the present moment. I encourage you to look more into mindfulness.

Time management. Self-care involves self-awareness on the tasks that you can handle and those that may be too much. Practice saying no to extra commitments when your plate is already full or asking for help. Having too demands on us can lead to stress and overwhelming feelings.

Doing things that bring you joy. Do an inventory of things you truly enjoy— starting with little things to big. What is feasible to sprinkle into your day? For some people, it may be drinking your favorite cup of tea, lighting up a candle, listening to your favorite music on the way to work or while at home, going on a bike ride, spending quality time with family and friends, watching their favorite TV show, doing your favorite hobby, etc. Whatever it may be, make it a consistent part of your practice.

Creative Release Outlets. We have seen the explosion of “adult coloring books” marketed as stress reduction tools, and there is evidence to back this up. The trick of coloring is that it is an activity that requires focusing in one task and as we color or paint, it allows us to express ourselves and set free of our worries, even if it is just for a few moments. This can be a fun activity to do alone or with kids. If coloring isn’t your thing, try journaling.  You can experience a sense of release by writing when you are feeling stressed, frustrated, tired, etc., or you may simply enjoy chronicling your positive experiences and looking back to it when you need inspiration or extra boost.

Connecting with nature and exercise. Nature has healing and self-soothing power. A walk in our local park or outside can be the break someone needs and it is not only good for overall physical health but for it improves our mental well-being.

Exercise is an important part of staying healthy both psychically and mentally. One of the things I commonly see is that we may get excited about an exercise routine but that excitement may dwindle or barriers begin to creep in. Instead of thinking of exercise as one more thing to do, think about it as something you need to do for your survival, just like you need to eat, breathe and sleep. To this, adding a self-care buddy that you can enjoy your activity with may make the journey much easier and more fulfilling. Exercise does not have to break your bank. Take to your local park and walk the recommended 30 minutes a day, either during your lunch break, before or after work or get off the metro or bus a few stops before your destination and walk the rest.

Connecting with others. Connecting with others has been found to be a key factor in maintaining our mental health. While we may interact with people throughout the day either through work, school or at home, what I am talking about is having meaningful connections and relationships of people you enjoy spending quality time with. The kind of people who bring you joy, lift you up, listen to you and support you and vice versa.

While technology and social media have great benefits, too much of it can hinder our ability to be present and it can prevent us from enjoying what’s around us. Unplugging occasionally from technology and social media is vital in our quest to taking care of our minds.

Take small breaks during the day. Beyond your lunch break, take small breaks as needed during the day. Make it an intentional practice to move around in your office, school or home. Instead of sending that email to your colleague, walk over to deliver your message in person if feasible.

Self-care buddy. This is my personal favorite: designating someone to hold you accountable on your self-care journey. At work, appoint colleagues who can remind you to have lunch and/or someone you can go on a walk with when stressed. At home, appoint loved ones who can support you in staying healthy and remind you of your commitment to yourself.

Use smartphone apps to support your practice. Some of my favorite are Calm and Bloom. Calm has different visualization images like beaches, mountains, rainforests with natural sounds that match the images. You have to try it to see the impact. You will literally be transported to those places.  Bloom is an app where you can include daily reminders including inspirational notes that you can load with images (your own pictures or from stock) and music. In this app, you can include reminders such as remembering to take a break, remembering to take a deep breath. You can schedule those messages to pop up throughout the day. It is kind of fun to get the messages when you least expect them but when you need them the most.

These are just a few ideas of endless activities you can do to keep up with your self-care. What may work for one person, may not work for another. The key to self-care is doing activities that can nourish our minds, bodies, and souls. The tools are within our reach to practice consistently, as a necessity, as a way of survival just like breathing and eating.

Self Care: Placing An Oxygen Mask On Yourself Prior To Assisting Others

Traveling with friends and family to events is something I like to do for two reasons. One is the fact that I like to share experiences with others who might not otherwise have the opportunity to travel. If I can help them create new memories and expand their minds I always try to. Two, I simply prefer to have company when I travel for speaking engagements or HipHop performances.

But there’s one specific time I recall that I’m sure my travel companions may have wished they had missed out on my excursions.

Primarily filled with judges and lawyers, this 1000 person audience threw me for a loop and off my game. What happened was both humbling and embarrassing. It also opened my eyes to some internal emotional work that I had yet to address. I wish it wouldn’t have unfolded on stage, but everything happens for a reason and this was no exception.

I stayed up until 5AM the night before the big conference preparing my notes and pacing in my hotel room, undoubtably irritating both my sister and friend/videographer who were sharing the two room suite that had been provided to us. I was noticeably more nervous than usual. Rightfully so, it was an entirely new audience. This nervousness led up to a level of self-exposure that was not planned nor pretty.

Keep in mind that keynote speaking is my full time career. These organizations don’t hire me just because of my fancy website or produced videos, they hire me because I have personal experience in the system and spent 15 years working as a Registered Nurse and child welfare advocate prior to launching my platform and publishing my book. Hopefully this tells you that this mishap was not due to inexperience, but rather a lack of awareness in the self-care department. It was not something that was obvious.

A small dog suffering from smoke inhalation was rescued by firefighters and given oxygen by firefighter/paramedic Mark Hubert. Photo by: Gigi Graciette (shared by OCFA)
A small dog suffering from smoke inhalation was rescued by firefighters and given oxygen by firefighter/paramedic Mark Hubert. Photo by: Gigi Graciette (shared by OCFA)

I have spent nearly a decade engulfed in self-development and improving my approach to self-care so it was not for lack of trying. It was simply something that went under the radar. I think that we all have little things that sift through the cracks of our diligent efforts time and time again. Which is why we need to regularly and consistently be reminded of the importance of self-care.

No matter how many times you have flown, the flight attendants always remind you to take care of yourself first. If the cabin loses oxygen then make sure you have your oxygen mask on prior to assisting others even children. You’re no good to anyone if you die before getting to them. And that is what happens when we keep letting little things slip through the cracks.

We die a little inside and aren’t able to be the great people we were meant to be for our friends, family, and clients. How many social workers do you know that need a social worker? Probably a lot. Remembering this can save your life and your relationships.

Therefore, at the risk of exposing my own insecurities to yet another large audience, I offer this story to inspire your own self-reflection in hopes of allowing you to be better prepared to face the unknowns in your life and work. Allow yourself to care for your own hidden emotional barriers before making a fool out of yourself in front of friends, co-workers, and most-importantly family members and clients.

During my presentations, I often speak about my relationship with my mother and the impact it had on me as a child as she was absent and often emotionally abusive. Shortly before this presentation, I learned more about the truth behind my mother’s behaviors during my childhood. I learned that she had been labeled with multiple mental health diagnoses and placed on several psychotropic medications that impaired her ability to function, much less parent.

It gave me a sense of relief. So much of my life, I had hatred pent up in my heart for her inability to provide love, compassion, trust, and understanding. But, this new knowledge gave me a new direction for that anger. It allowed me to blame others or simply blame the system.

During this presentation, I spoke about those new findings. Self-exposure is generally very moving, right? I thought so too, but I found that to be the case only if done strategically and with purpose.

There was no purpose for my ranting about the corruption of the system. I was simply ranting.

Afterwards, a lady who looked my mom’s age and as if she may have had a rough life herself gave me a note. She told me to open it when I get back to my hotel room, and I did. It read: “I’m glad your aunty was there for you when I wasn’t able to be. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to be who you needed me to be. I love you very much. -signed, Mom”

I didn’t know it, but those were the words I had been longing to hear my entire life. And this woman knew it. Something tells me she was in my mothers shoes most of her life and possibly was once in my shoes as well.

Sitting in that hotel room, I broke down in tears immediately upon reading those words. She got it. She found a gaping wound and she picked up on it from my ranting on stage when I should have been providing actionable steps for the audience.

50 percent of the reviews from this event were negative. I obviously didn’t follow through with what the audience needed. I am embarrassed to say that, but hopefully this is a reminder that it is okay to need help. It is okay to take time away. Self care is essential, and it is okay for the counselors to seek counsel. Actually, it is necessary so that you don’t cause 50 percent of the people in your life to feel negative about your interactions with them.

We are here to help others, but we must help ourselves first.

Burnout: Who’s Taking Care of the Care Takers?

 

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Stressors are a given in the helping professions such as social work, teaching, and nursing which can often lead to burnout. These can include intense and long work hours, low salaries, mismanagement, lack of appreciation and support, lack of job autonomy and security, lack of professional development and growth opportunities, politics (both interagency and governmental), and even personal risk at times. As a result it’s highly important to establish and implement procedures that reduce and/or eliminate stressors in order to prevent burnout and ultimately employee turnover which negatively impacts the organization and those served. 

Burnout is preventable. However, helping professions haven’t typically focused on their employees in the same way they’ve focused on their clients. Reducing and eliminating the stressors that contribute to burnout would ultimately require a total revamping of society. Many of the standards set by organizations are established by outside sources that are often disconnected from the reality of service provision.

This can lead to organizations placing a greater priority on those standards rather than addressing and supporting the needs of their employees, which also directly affect the needs of those they are helping. In an attempt to meet particular standards, organizations often have limited resources to reach their objectives. This can manifest as low salaries as well as significant overtime due to limited staffing due to limited funding while occurring within a societal framework that often fails to provide sufficient vacation time, healthcare, or other programs to support well being.

Contemplating a complete overhaul of society is overwhelming and contributory factor in creating the circumstances for burnout. There are many protective factors helping organizations and employees as individuals can do to promote change. Many in the helping fields advocate for others as individuals and overall societal change, but often have difficulty advocating for themselves. Some of this is a result of societal traditions and some of it is a result of a lack of education on the issues that directly impact them. This is particularly evident in regards to pay.

Employees in the helping professions are often underpaid and since money equals value in our society this communicates how little our society values the services these individuals provide.  Of course most don’t go into their chosen field to make a ton of money. However, if one has a major financial burden due to the profession they chose, this can contribute to burnout. At a societal and organizational level, those in helping professions need to advocate not only for higher pay, but also shorter work hours and increased vacation time.

Research has demonstrated that working overtime has a direct correlation to decreased productivity while employing flexible hours has a direct correlation to increased productivity.  Such policies also promote overall well being in all aspects of life, therefore, they should be taken into consideration and ample time off should be provided to recuperate. This could also provide opportunities for more jobs in these fields thus decreasing the unemployment rate.

These changes alone could move the meter tremendously towards eradication of burnt out helping professionals. Additionally, there are smaller changes that can be made until organizations and society buys in to the value of taking care of its employees and citizens.  Since increased job autonomy and social support within organizations are directly linked to increased job satisfaction and decreased stress, organizations should create an environment that promotes this. Supervisors need to be mindful of providing praise as well as allowing room for employees to create aspects of their job duties.

Many enter into their chosen field passionate about certain areas and when they aren’t allowed to be involved in their passions, lose enthusiasm for their job.  Encouraging employees to incorporate their passions can significantly improve job satisfaction and decrease burnout. As well, creating promotional opportunities along with salary increases adds to employees’ motivation to be productive and satisfied. Along with all of this, providing opportunities for professional development in areas of employees’ interests will promote growth that will benefit both the individual workers and the organization. Included in this should be stress management workshops because no matter how many of these changes are made, stress will still exist in the helping professions.

Employees and organizations need to constantly educate and empower themselves in order to most effectively advocate for those they help, their field, and of course, themselves. At first, it may appear selfish to advocate for oneself when many working in helping professions have been socialized to operate within society’s parameters. By instituting protective factors for helping professionals, it will not only benefit the employees and their fields, but society as a whole will also reap the benefits. It’s time to stand up for health and well being for all including those who traditionally provide such opportunities of empowerment.

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