Victim Needs From a Faith-Based Perspective
Strong emotions are a normal part of working with victims of crime. Victim assistance professionals, including clergy, should expect to have their own emotions unbalanced at times. As victims unburden themselves with tales of horrific experiences, healers absorb some of the pain. In effect, they become witnesses to the traumatic experience. Like others who assist victims in crisis, clergy may become subject to compassion fatigue, also known as burnout. In some cases, they risk an even more serious danger: vicarious or secondary trauma.
Vicarious trauma is a stress reaction that may be experienced by clergy and other victim assistance professionals who are exposed to disclosures of traumatic images and events by those seeking help. Helping professionals may experience long-lasting changes in how they view themselves, others, and the world.
The symptoms of vicarious trauma are similar to, but usually not as severe as, those of posttraumatic stress disorder, and can affect the lives and careers of even clergy with considerable training and experience in working with disaster and trauma survivors. They may include—
- Intrusions such as flashbacks or nightmares.
- Avoidance, in which the person tries to reduce exposure to the people or situations that might bring on his or her intrusive symptoms.
- Hyperarousal or physical symptoms such as hypervigilance, sleeplessness, or increased startle response.
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Factors that increase the risk of vicarious trauma include—
- Unexpected or repeated exposure to trauma.
- The degree of empathy that a clergyperson feels for the victim's suffering.
- Unresolved emotional issues.
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Prevention and Response
It is crucial for clergy who work with victims to find ongoing support systems for themselves, and to identify situations that may trigger unresolved emotional issues and refer such cases to a colleague. Often, simply acknowledging the effect on one that others' pain has can be one of the best coping mechanisms. The victim assistance community also may be able to provide support for clergy by using established debriefing techniques. Finally, for clergy who are exposed to a mass victimization, participation in a well-run critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) may be helpful.9
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