Working with Members of the Military: Secondary Traumatic Stress

By Rachel Dorman, MS & Heidi Radunovich, PhD

Due to the growing rate of military members suffering from PTSD and seeking mental health treatment, mental health providers may be exposed to indirect trauma more than ever. As a result, providers are at risk of experiencing secondary traumatic stress. In today’s blog we will be taking a closer look at secondary traumatic stress by discussing a study conducted by Cieslak and colleagues (2013).

Therapist working with client
[Flickr, CFF_4170 by Converse College, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 17, 2015
The researchers in this study examined indirect exposure to trauma, and its relationship to secondary traumatic stress among mental health providers working with military members. The authors defined secondary traumatic stress (STS) as having “PTSD-like symptoms” after indirect exposure to trauma. The study participants included 223 psychologists, counselors, or social workers who provide mental health services to military service members, and as a result have been exposed to indirect trauma within the past year of working. The participants completed a survey which assessed level of indirect exposure to traumatic stress, appraisal of the impact of exposure, direct exposure to trauma, symptoms of secondary stress, and workplace and professional support characteristics.

In relation to prevalence of STS, the researchers found that over 19% of the participants met the criteria of intrusion, arousal, and avoidance associated with a PTSD diagnosis. Intrusion was found to be the most common criteria at 57%, then arousal at 35%, and lastly avoidance at 30%. The researchers found that seeing higher numbers of traumatized clients in practice increased the likelihood of experiencing STS. It was also found that how practitioners viewed indirect exposure to trauma impacted likelihood of STS, such that the more negatively a practitioner felt about the indirect exposure, the higher the number of STS symptoms. Overall, having too many clients, higher levels of a personal history with trauma, and higher levels of negative appraisal of indirect exposure were the strongest predictors for STS symptoms.

Individuals holding hands
[Flickr, Together, in B&W by Care_SMC, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 17, 2015
The researchers call for the need for more awareness and appraisal of secondary traumatic exposure for mental health providers working with the military population. To learn more about dealing with secondary traumatic stress check out previous blogs: Self-care for the Military Advocate  or Self-care When Caring for Others.

References

[1] Cieslak, R., Anderson V., Bock. J., Moore, B., Peterson, A., & Benight, C. (2013). Secondary traumatic stress among mental health providers working with the military: Prevalence and its work- and exposure-related correlates. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201(11), p. 917 – 925. DOI:10.1097/NMD.0000000000000035

This post was written by Rachel Dorman, M.S. and Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on TwitterYouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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