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“Secondary Victims”: APA 2009 Conference, Part 2

As part of her presentation on PTSD at the recent American Psychotherapy Association conference in Las Vegas, psychologist Dr. Debra Russell of Beaufort, South Carolina identified and defined an important category of trauma sufferers – “secondary victims” of trauma.

Secondary victims, according to Debra, are a community’s first responders – police forces, fire crews, EMTs, and emergency room physicians.  These invaluable, heroic professionals witness traumatic events as a part of their daily job.   Hour after hour, they follow their calling to rescue primary victims of trauma, such as car accident victims, crime victims, and the victims of sudden heart attacks.

Debra knows her subject.  She is a former police officer.  She writes,

“Although most professionals in the field of PTSD or disaster responses have had some type of pre-trauma training or preparation, the most experienced may develop an unstable psychological response following a specific situation.  Police and fire academies have classes on trauma and PTSD reactions.  Emergency medical services (EMS) professionals have attended trainings that often explain the possible reactions following a horrific accident.  Physicians save and lose lives daily but for some reason, they become traumatized.  The most seasoned professional, including the medical and psychological fields, may develop PTSD after responding to many similar situations or one horrific scene.  In addition, observers of trauma may experience the traumatic effects of the primary victims, often with the feelings of powerlessness similar to the victim.  It appears that one day, something triggers the PTSD response for this person.”

Let me highlight one phrase: “The most seasoned professional, including the medical and psychological fields, may develop PTSD . . .”.  I strongly agree.

Over a period of time, professionals in the field of trauma treatment will themselves become traumatized.  It’s unavoidable; we’re only human, not superhuman.  It’s a hard thing for me to accept but it’s true.

We have to pay careful attention, all of us as treatment personnel.  There is an impact to helping people through trauma that must be addressed.  Our patients’ trauma can affect us as much as it affects them.

Here at the institute, we do our best to help our treatment teams with the impact of trauma.  We stress the need for professional self-care, including good nutrition, exercise, getting enough rest, and enjoying refreshing activities away from work.

I also want to mention another discipline that I feel to be absolutely essential – the therapeutic modality I created and call Reichian-Physical Release Therapy (RMFR).  RMFR provides real healing for trauma and its debilitating effects.  My staff and I use it regularly to remain effective in our work.

These actions are extremely important to preserve our ability to defuse the pain and stress we absorb from our patients.  But I believe that maintaining loving, healthy relationships with our spouses and families, along with nurturing our spiritual life and faith in a higher power, are even more essential.

Finally, I feel strongly that a passion for the work we do, combined with the humility to ask for help when we need it, sustains the mental health professional.

I’ve seen too many good people, people with the heart and skill to help others, neglect themselves and eventually burn out and become unable to function in their chosen field.  Caregivers must also care for themselves in order to continue to give to others.  Not that it’s easy.  But it’s vital, and I’m grateful for fellow professionals like Dr. Debra Russell who are helping get the message out.