High Risk for Educators: Secondary Traumatic Stress

High Risk for Educators: Secondary Traumatic Stress
High Risk for Educators: Secondary Traumatic Stress

Private School News

With summer upon us, you may find yourself with extra time to enjoy what the season offers—relaxation. It can be an easier time of year for educators to decompress, take deep breaths, and treat themselves kindly.

However, taking care of mental health is a continuous effort. For some, the extra hours of summer are simply not enough to heal from the school-year’s secondary traumatic stress. In fact, some aren’t even aware of the stress they’re carrying from secondary sources.

Secondary traumatic stress (STS), sometimes known as compassion fatigue, is a condition that impacts people who work with those who have experienced trauma. Therapists, counselors, law enforcement personnel, medical professionals, social workers, and educators have been identified as high risk for STS. STS is sometimes confused with burnout, which is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and/or prolonged stress.

Burnout and STS symptoms are nearly identical. The key difference is the source. Burnout is caused by prolonged stress, resulting in feeling exhausted and helpless. Burnout sufferers might not feel appreciated or that their role matters in the organization. They might also experience physical ailments, such as changes in sleep and appetite.

STS is caused by prolonged exposure to others’ stresses, resulting in many of the same symptoms as burnout. The difference is that STS can be harder to treat due to the origin of the stress. 

Roughly half of American school children have experienced some form of trauma, such as neglect, abuse, or violence, according to Mindshift, a free editorially independent source of education news and information. Educators often support not only the academic growth of their students, but also their emotional development through adolescence. These relationships and situations can be difficult to fully detach from—especially when trauma is present—without proper support systems in place.

A study conducted by the University of Montana concluded that there is an increased risk for STS in school personnel. The study analyzed over 300 staff members, including educators, in six schools in the northwest region of the U.S. According to the study, “approximately 75% of the sample exceeded cut-offs on all three subscales of STS. Furthermore, 35.3% of participants reported at least moderate symptoms of depression.” All this was found despite the participants reporting high levels of job satisfaction.

School leaders need to be aware of STS, how it can affect faculty and staff, and what to do to alleviate its impact. Other occupations that are at high risk for STS, such as social workers and therapists, are trained to recognize signs of secondary stress. However, most educators and administrators are not professionally trained to detect the warning signs of STS. Without coping skills, even the most seasoned professionals can struggle. This impacts how they function at work, their physical health, and their mental and spiritual well-being. They might even isolate themselves from friends and family and alter their personality.

STS can occur due to interaction with one particular student or from the cumulative total of working with many students over years. It is most commonly understood to happen gradually over time. Through overuse, the ability to care and sympathize with others is eroded. Many of the symptoms are similar to PTSD, and in certain cases, can be severe.

Common symptoms of STS, according to The American Institute of Stress

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Reduced sense of personal accomplishment or meaning in work
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Decreased interactions with others
  • Depersonalization
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Lowered concentration
  • Rigid thinking
  • Perfectionism
  • Feeling guilt, anger, numbness, sadness, or helplessness
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Impaired immune system
  • Appetite changes
  • Hypervigilance

Prevention of STS should be a priority for your school. Abuse happens at all social and economic levels, across all races, and within all religions—so no student or educator is immune from this issue.

Consider policies that provide employee support, promote work-life balance, and value self-care. Educate employees about STS and burnout so they’re able to develop coping mechanisms.

Another resource for faculty and staff members is the Professional Quality of Life self-stress assessment tool. It was created by Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm, a retired professor and researcher in the field of traumatic stress. This tool is based on the theory of compassion satisfaction (the pleasure people derive from helping others) and compassion fatigue (the negative aspect of helping others who are experiencing trauma and suffering).

Most important—encourage your team and yourself to be trauma aware. If you’re having trouble fully decompressing this summer, or are close with a colleague who seems to struggle with burnout or STS, try to discover what’s happening.

Sometimes symptoms can be self-managed by taking time to immerse oneself in enjoyable activities, such as nature, family, or hobbies. However, sometimes professional support is necessary.

In those moments, it’s important to not feel ashamed for needing additional guidance—everyone experiences lows when a support team is vital. If you need support, reach out for help. If you don’t know where to turn, talk with your healthcare provider for suggestions or try these services.

  • Lines for life. A 24/7/365 support service to help with issues related to teens, senior loneliness, substance abuse, and suicide prevention. Texting and phone call services are available.
  • Resources from the National Alliance on Mental Health. The site lists resources for depression, suicide and crisis, and financial assistance.
  • Better help. An online resource pairing people with local counselors 24/7. Patients can write or blog their feelings and events, set up 30-minute phone calls, or schedule video calls with the counselor they’ve been paired with. There is a monthly fee—however, if it’s not affordable, patients can apply for financial aid. Also, most consumer-driven health care plans will reimburse costs.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Private School News Vol. 18 No. 10 Get Back in Touch: Improving Your Mental Health
The Source for Academic Leadership Vol. 14 No. 5 Student Mental Health and Your Advisory Program
The Source for Private School News
Vol. 18 No. 2 Top Apps of 2018 That Support a Healthy Lifestyle

Additional ISM resources for members:
I&P Vol. 41 No. 6 From Toxic to Healthy: How to Move Your School’s Culture


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