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What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious Trauma & Secondary Trauma/Primary Trauma of professional/workers.

If we are to support survivors of sexual violence to move past their trauma we need to take care of ourselves. The very nature of providing good support is to utilise empathy, and empathy asks us to truly try to understand what someone is feeling and their experiences. This can mean that without the right support we can take on some of the trauma that we have heard and/or seen. This is the personal cost of working with trauma.


“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet” Rachel Remen


Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma occurs in people who hear about traumatic incidents. It is usually a culmination of hearing about distressing or emotionally disturbing experiences, which overwhelm usual coping mechanisms.

“I supported young people who had difficult family lives for over 8 years, I heard hundreds of terrible experiences that children should never have to experience, eventually I just couldn’t emotionally do it. It affected my work, my family life, the way I saw myself and the world.”


Secondary Trauma

Secondary Trauma occurs in people who have witnessed or felt like they have witnessed the aftermath of a traumatic incident. It can be triggered by a one off experience or be the ‘straw that broke the camels back’, if vicarious trauma has not been dealt with.

“I’ve had many people disclose sexual violence in my career. But one disclosure in particular really affected me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I went over it again and again, like I had been there, or even experienced it myself.”


Primary Trauma

Primary Trauma occurs in people who are present when a traumatic incident occurs. This can be a ‘victim/survivor’ or a witness.

“When I saw what she did to herself (self harm) and the blood, and her emotional distress, and how I could not get her the service provision she needed immediately, it stuck with me. I was really affected, upset and couldn’t stop thinking about it for months. My family were really worried about me, I had to take some time off work.”


Self Care is not Optional


To ensure that we can provide good support/care we must be supported, and support ourselves. With increasing demand to services and with less resources, selfcare can feel like it is at the bottom of our to-do list. But without selfcare we are unable to maintain the mental health we need to support survivors of trauma. This is when burn out happens. Selfcare is not optional, it is absolutely necessary.

Be Trauma Informed

Anyone working with or could work with a child/young person or adult who has experienced trauma needs to be trauma informed. This supports the worker to understand trauma, its effects on the survivor and the potential to affect the worker.

Time to Debrief/Reflect

Protected time after direct work with a trauma survivor is crucial to allow reflection, a deepening of self awareness and to debrief with a peer/line manager if needed. In today’s climate of ever shrinking resources, including time, we are all trying to do more with less, however without this time we risk finding ourselves overwhelmed.

Peer Support

Fostering a culture of support in a non judgemental environment is key to self care within a team. Showing self doubt and vulnerability can be very difficult and a compassionate environment goes a long way to dealing with vicarious trauma. If we are to show compassion with those we support, we must be able to do the same with our peers. In addition, from compassion can come collective problem solving and new ways of thinking.

Supportive Supervision

Ideally, supervision should not only look at an individuals processes, procedure and targets. Positive supervision should look at the wellbeing for the worker, team and organisation. Not feeling judged or penalised for having insecure feelings and self doubt is key to a positive supportive supervision experience.

External Counselling

Access to free confidential external counselling can be crucial for a worker who is working with high levels of trauma every day. In addition external counselling can be beneficial for a worker who has experienced primary trauma within their role.

Promote Wellbeing

Promote self care and wellbeing activities within your team. Access mindfulness training for everyone, have a weekly/monthly team meeting focusing on wellbeing; breathing, stretching, relaxation. Actively promote a ‘proper’ lunch break. Encourage and promote leaving work related thoughts and feelings at the ‘office’ door before going home.


NHS Education for Scotland, in partnership with West Dunbartonshire Health and Social Care Partnership, have produced a helpful animation to remind us all of the importance of frontline workers selfcare.


Where is your Mental Health Today?

Above image based on the Mental Health Continuum Model.

We find this model a really helpful tool in checking in how we are feeling. RASAC P&K Staff regularly ask themselves, "How am I doing today". This might help you to then reflect on: What should I be aware of right now, what support might I need today, What level of self care do I need to introduce into my day, what should I be doing to maintain a good level of mental well being.

Remember, kindness goes a long way, be kind to yourself and others


Resource you may find helpful:


Should you want to speak to a support worker in confidence please contact us.


  • Helpline: 01738 626290
  • Business Line: 01738 630965; Mondays-Friday, 9pm – 4pm
  • Alternatively you can access: National Rape Crisis Helpline; 08088 01 03 02; every evening 5pm – midnight

Referral form

If you would like to refer yourself into our support service or would like to refer a woman or young person you are working with, download our Referral Form.