“Coming From a Place of Not Knowing” with Alanna Audus

There is something to be said about social workers who are graciously willing to tell their story, just 12 months after diving into their remote social work experience.  Still in the midst of a giant learning curve, Alanna Audus joins me on Talk the Walk to share the ups, downs and delicious highlights of her beginnings in Alice Springs.  Alanna is a newcomer to narrative therapy and is delighted with the way her somewhat ‘kooky’ conversations with people are beginning to shape their lives for the better.  She works as a generalist and victims of crime counsellor for CatholicCare NT with some of the most marginalised Aboriginal people in Australia.

This conversation is as delightful as it is authentic.  So be warned, Alanna’s heartfelt generosity may inspire you to pack up your city life and go bush.

On episode 27, we explore:

  • What led Alanna to pack up all her belongings and head to Alice Springs
  • What it’s really like starting out in social work with no prior experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Alanna’s unique story which has influenced her passion and drive for social justice
  • A ‘fly on the wall’ account of Alanna’s approach to counselling, starting out in narrative therapy
  • Why relationships are at the heart of Alanna’s practice and feeling okay about not knowing
  • The rich conversations that transpire working with metaphors
  • Methods of narrative documentation such as letter writing which record people’s processes of acknowledgement and achievement, and what difference this makes to clients
  • Struggles and challenges Alanna has faced in her first year in a remote community and the notion of ‘doing therapy on yourself everyday’
  • The influence of nature and the raw environment on Alanna’s self care, allowing her to do high intensity social work
  • Reflections on resilience in ourselves and our clients
  • The people, institutions and the influence of radical politics that have shaped Alanna’s social work practice framework and life
  • Reflections on the NT Emergency Intervention more than a decade on, a continuation of ongoing oppression and disempowerment which began with colonisation
  • Words of wisdom for other social workers considering the move from big city to remote outback and avoiding burnout
  • A sparkling moment from Alanna’s last week

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Things to follow up after the episode

Contact Alanna on alanna.audus(at)gmail(dot)com

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.