Helping the helpers

The chapter 5 of our manual is dedicated to discussing how to manage the stresses to which helpers are exposed when they work with children who have experienced sexual abuse.

Talking to survivors of trauma also affects the helper. For all helpers, empathy is an essential aspect of good help. This is also a source for compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatisation or secondary traumatic stress (STS).

Early recognition and awareness are crucial to be resilient to these symptoms. Awareness of this is important for workers in areas of conflict and disaster, and in extreme environments such as these, people may be more vulnerable to secondary traumatisation. We also know that professionals under this kind of stress may be at risk to perform less efficiently and not perform as they would normally do. Even large organizations that have the resources and knowledge about this particular kind of stress may have reduced capacity to deal with or take care of the affected personnel. As for local helpers, there may often not be any support or resources at all to deal with this. On MHHRI´s thematic page for helping the helpers we have gathered links that can be useful for all persons engaged in this kind of important but heavy work.

Helping is often demanding. Helpers must push themselves but also take care of themselves, which can be difficult to balance. They risk secondary trauma when they listen to children’s experiences, particularly if they have been abused themselves. Despite their efforts, they may at times struggle to deal with their emotions, have relationship problems, find it difficult to make decisions, experience physical pains or illness, feel hopeless, think their life has no meaning, or suffer a collapse in self-esteem. This is burnout. Early recognition and awareness are crucial to preventing it.

Helpers need to develop strategies for coping that pre-empt secondary traumatisation. The fifth chapter of our Mental health manual for those working with children exposed to
sexual violence provides more information on what helpers and their employers can do to protect themselves. Fortunately, what works for survivors can also work for helpers. If symptoms of secondary traumatisation or compassion fatigue occur, the tools that help survivors can often assist helpers. Helpers should try to recognise their own reactions and understand what has caused them.

At the same time, helpers would not do this work if it did not have positive effects. One of these is resilience: the capacity to recover from difficult experiences. Many helpers feel that witnessing the extraordinary resilience of children who have been abused has changed how they react and behave, not only at work, but as people; it has helped them to handle their own sorrows and challenges.