Burnout and Vicarous Trauma:  An employee defect or a yearning for collective action for social justice?

If you work in the area of trauma counselling, chances are you have an organisation or colleagues keeping a watchful eye out for the first signs and symptoms of burnout or vicarious trauma.

In my workplace we have to complete two tests every year – the Compassion Fatigue Self Test for Practioners and the Trauma and Attachment Beliefs Scale.  We also have regular training so that employees can identify the symptoms in each other.

While it might be considered admirable for our organisations to have a Vicarious Trauma Policy and working proactively to promote the health and wellbeing of its employees, what is it that is really happening here?  And what effect is this having?

If someone returns high results to vicarious trauma testing, the onus is on the individual to address it.  They are encouraged to revisit their self care plan or self refer to the Employee Assistance Program.  This kind of response pathologises the problem and locates it within the individual, that the counsellor is somehow defective or not strong enough.   It follows then that the client is to blame for somehow causing an injury by sharing their story with us.   Vikki Reynolds says using self care as an antidote for burnout “does nothing about the social determinants of health for people….  The problem is not in our heads or our hearts, but in the social world where clients and workers struggle with structures of injustice.”  Vikki argues that assuming a position where clients are seen to be hurting us is not an act of accountability at all.

In Darwin where I practice, we are surrounded by some of the worst cases of injustice in Australia such as the mistreatment of youth in detention, the highest rates of removal of Aboriginal children from their families and concerning numbers of child abuse within the foster care system.  Not far from us, refugees on Manus Island continue to suffer.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to hear the sad and heartbreaking stories of abuse and violence and the impact this has had on our clients.  And yes, I see and hear the impacts of intergenerational trauma outside my house; it’s difficult to escape it sometimes.  However, I return a normal vicarious trauma result.  I also hear inspiring stories of skills, knowledge and strengths of survival; stories of people speaking out to the Royal Commission so that the same thing doesn’t happen to other people; stories of people taking action to reduce the isolation caused by their poverty and homelessness.  I admire the steps of resistance my clients make against systems of injustice.  Indeed, clients do not hurt us, but instead inspire us, teach us and critique us says Reynolds.

The biggest critique our clients could legitimately make is why we, as workers, are not ‘fostering collective sustainability’*, coming together in solidarity to challenge the institutions and systems which marginalise and victimise our clients.

Indeed the collective silence of social workers in Australia is more likely to lead to my potential burnout, due to my frustration with the profession.  Why are social workers not out on the streets marching together to get Manus Island refugees to Australia?  Why are we silent in our support of our Indigenous comrades in the fight for Recognition?  Why are we standing back and allowing removal of Aboriginal children from families to go up and up?  Isn’t that why we entered this profession in the first place, to make a real difference to the social structures of injustice?  I was once accused of getting too close to a community because I cared too much, and was threatened to be removed by my employer.  However I was proud of my role as an advocate for social justice for the community and its people.

Social justice activism is a protective factor against vicarious trauma.  It’s not our clients that are hurting us.  It is our silence and inaction.

Perhaps the care we can show our colleagues is not to watch out for signs or symptoms of vicarious trauma in the workplace, but to gather in solidarity around shared ethics of social justice and collective accountability.  Let’s get out on the streets and do what we signed up for.

*‘Fostering collective sustainability’ is one of the guiding intentions advocated by Vikki Reynold in Justice Doing in Community Work and Therapy.

‘The confronting world of working with Aboriginal Youth in Detention’ with Daniel Hastwell

Photos courtesy of ABC

I still can’t get this image out of my head.  A youth detained at the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre is forcibly restrained and hooded.   As Australians watched on in disbelief at the shocking Four Corners footage in July 2016, our Prime Minister quickly responded, setting up a Royal Commission to investigate practices inside the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention facilities and child protection system.

As part of a suite of supports put in place for young people and families making submissions to the Royal Commission, Relationships Australia was funded to provide counselling services.   One of those to join the team, moving from Adelaide to Darwin was Daniel Hastwell.
In Epsiode 13 of ‘Talk the Walk’, you’ll get an inside look at what it’s really like to work alongside a Royal Commission using a trauma informed approach to counselling.
With over 90% of youth in detention being Aboriginal, this has got to be one of the toughest and most important jobs in the country at the moment.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Daniel’s reaction to the Four Corners report which sparked the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory
  • Daniel Hastwell – Counsellor, Royal Commission Support Service

    Daniel’s previous experience working alongside Aboriginal consultants with Aboriginal families in child protection and hospital social work

  • What sparked Daniel to up and leave Adelaide for the Northern Territory
  • Daniel’s interest in culture and it’s connection to personal values of respect for the land
  • A day in the life of a Royal Commission Support Service counsellor
  • What it’s like to work with traumatised young Aboriginal men and youth
  • Using personal disclosure to build a relationship of trust and the challenges of engagement
  • celebrating the small moments and stories of success
  • outcomes for people who have shared their story with the Royal Commission
  • the hopes that clients have expressed for change within the system and Daniel’s hopes for the Recommendations due in November
  • The need for early intervention and prevention support services for young people

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Contact Daniel Hastwell via daniel(at)ra-nt.org.au

‘Magic Wand Dreaming’ with Emily Hapea

What’s it like to walk in two worlds, as a non-Indigenous social worker in a remote Aboriginal community, fresh out of university?

While that might seem daunting, Emily Hapea saw the opportunity for growth, developing authentic relationships and honouring the truth of First Nations Australians.

Emily lives and works in Cairns in northern Queensland.   In this episode of ‘Talk the Walk’, Emily shares the journey that has shaped her understanding of trauma-informed practice influenced by experiences of institutional racism and a denial of Australia’s black history.

Like many social workers who are expected to wave a magic wand, Emily prefers to draw on deeply engrained values of equality, compassion for others and a sense of justice, to create a way of working that sustains her.

In this refreshing conversation, we explore:

    • The beginnings of Emily’s social justice journey from childhood; the influences and myths that have shaped her ethics and values in life and work
    • Why Emily believes that it is impossible to be born in Australia and avoid being racist
    • Seeing intergenerational trauma as a truth, not a theory
    • Emily’s framework for social work practice
    • Beginnings and sparkling moments from working with vulnerable Aboriginal women seeking to get Child Protection out of their life, working within Noel Pearson’s Welfare Reform agenda for Cape York, and an innovative accommodation and early intervention support service for new mums
    • The biggest learnings of being thrown in the deep end, fresh out of university into Cape York communities
    • What can help when starting work in a new cultural context and the importance of developing relationships with cultural mentors
    • Differences between social work in Indigenous and mainstream contexts
    • The knowledge and skills Emily developed that she wouldn’t have, if she hadn’t worked with Indigenous communities
    • Advice for social workers new to the field
    • The sickness of denial about Australia’s true history and owning our racism, contrasted with Aboriginal people’s resilence and passion
    • What Emily would do if she had a magic wand

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Trauma Trails’ by Professor Judy Atkinson

Why weren’t we told’ by Henry Reynolds

Jackie Huggins

Retraumatising our Children in Youth Detention is Crossing the Line

Shock.  Disbelief.  Disgust.  Anger.  Sadness.  Despair.  I have been through the whole gammit of emotions this week.  So if this is how I have been feeling, how must my Indigenous brothers and sisters be feeling in Australia right now?

One of the outrages images from Don Dale juvenile detention centre in Darwin where a youth is forcibly restrained in shackles and spithood

One of the outrages images from Don Dale juvenile detention centre in Darwin where a youth is forcibly restrained in shackles and spithood

I cannot let this week pass without saying something about what I have been feeling and thinking as Aboriginal people around Australia are forced into a position of protest (yet again).  You would have seen it.  You couldn’t escape it.  Images of an Aboriginal boy shackled to a chair at the hands and feet, a spithood over his head.  And surrounded by four guards in Don Dale Junenile Detention Facility (or hellhole as it has recently been referred to).  It is the worst kind of child abuse I have ever seen captured on camera, delivered at the hands of guards whose duty is to uphold some form of justice!

Images of torture and trauma in the NT Juvenile Justice system have sent shockwaves across the country resulting in uproar from every section of society.  Thankfully this uproar is a sign that as a country we do care.  There are some of us that haven’t lost our humanity, despite the actions of our Territory Government who have brainwashed us into thinking otherwise with rhetoric about tough love, punishment and needing to come down hard of criminals.  This action by our criminal justice system has well and truly crossed the line.

I simply cannot fathom what it must be like to be a child in juvenile detention, being locked into solitary confinement in a cell barely bigger than my bathroom, having to eat with my hands and experiencing violent abuse at the hands of those that are supposed to be much wiser than me.  It brings me to tears whenever I think about it.

What annoys me most of all is the ignorance of those who choose to comment on social media about ‘bad children who are getting the treatment they deserve’.  I couldn’t read the comments myself as it would only make my blood boil.  But I hear about them.  The fact is no-one ever deserves to be treated this way in a justice system, no matter what they have done.  That is why we have the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  These are children for god’s sake.  Juvenile justice is our one opportunity to show a better way, to put our kids on the right path.

It is highly likely these youth have experienced a lifetime of trauma starting in the first 1000 years of their life.  The last thing they need is an infliction of further trauma.  By the time adolescence rolls around, this is final intervention point to alter the neurological makeup of this child heading into adulthood.  To reprogram their subcortical structures into one of empathy and love, rather than the one of violence and destruction they have been programmed for.

Barrister John B Lawrence addresses the rally in Darwin today

Barrister John B Lawrence addresses the rally in Darwin today

This morning, I attended a rally in Darwin about the NT Justice System and how it is inflicting cruelty on our young people, 97% of whom are Aboriginal.   Since the day of Invasion, we continue to punish and inflict pain onto those who are the most marginalised in our society.  These youth are the latest victims of years of intergenerational trauma.

John B Lawrence is a barrister in Darwin and has represented many young people who have been the victim of inhumane treatment at Don Dale.  His words at the rally were powerful and angry.  Please take time to listen to some of his speech below.  It is people like this standing up, speaking out and taking action, that will help in some way to start to heal the wounds of this dreadful week.

Hopefuly the events of this week inspire you to action.  If we want this Royal Commission to be a fair one it must have a totally independent Commissioner at the helm, not the one that has been appointed.  You can make a real difference by putting your concerns in writing and sending them to Malcolm Turnbull here.

rally2You might want to address the following concerns raised by the rally this morning as follows.

To address youth Justice issues and call for;

  1. The appointment of a fair-minded Attorney-General
  2. The removal of young people from current detention facilities now and placed in appropriate secure accommodation
  3. Adequate resources for the Royal Commission into youth detention
  4. Redress for youth victims & their families
  5. Government leaders to address social matters instead of de-funding social services

On a final note, it is easy for a sense of hopelessness to take over in weeks like this.  I have found it useful to retreat into the healing peace of music. Today I’ve been playing Spirit Bird by Xavier Rudd.  Enjoy.