“Vicarious trauma” is a psychological hazard that affects people who work in the trenches with the most disadvantaged people, from social workers to addictions counselors to caseworkers to public health providers to corrections workers. Anyone who listens to stories of social injustice, day in and day out, knows what it is. (If you don’t do that kind of work, remember how you felt the first few days after you heard about Sandy Hook Elementary. You weren’t there, but you kind of were.)
Bad dreams, whacked out body chemistry, haywire emotions, and memory problems: it’s no fun, but, weirdly, many people who do this work will never leave it. Because it’s work that really matters.
In honor of everyone who makes a huge personal sacrifice to make the world a just place, I want to talk about the psychological hazards of doing social justice work, and what people who do it do to stay resilient.
I’ve been working as a social worker and teacher for the past 25 years. I’ve worked in a psychiatric hospital for patients with dissociative identity, a treatment program for violent men, a drop-in center for people with mental illness, residential addiction treatment for youth and adults, and a school for children with behavioral challenges.
I have an MFA (Creative Writing) from The American University in Washington, D.C., and a MA (Clinical Social Work) from the University of Chicago, where I also did my undergraduate studies.
I like to write. My work has appeared in The Sun, American Baby Magazine and The Psychotherapy Networker. Since moving to Portland, Oregon in 1997, I have written reviews and commentaries for The Oregonian.