Social work practice with trauma survivors
Lee, Jacquelyn Jean
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By the nature of their work, social workers are often exposed secondarily to the devastating impact accompanying such events as natural disasters, child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, crime, and involvement in military combat. Professional contact with traumatic material puts social workers at risk for developing secondary traumatic stress (STS), a condition characterized by virtually identical symptomatology as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and thought to be associated with high turnover in the field. As empirical investigation of STS emerges, much of the literature focusing on the phenomenon has yielded disparate findings, and little research is aimed at understanding how STS impacts the social work profession. The purpose of the study was to examine social workers’ experiences related to working with trauma survivors. The study investigated the prevalence of STS among social workers as well as associated risk factors (i.e., exposure to traumatic material, personal trauma history, and empathy) and protective factors (i.e., emotional separation, personal self-care, and professional self-care). To explore seven research questions, the study utilized a cross-sectional survey design and included a random sample of licensed, masters-level social workers currently employed in a direct practice capacity. The sample (N = 539) was obtained through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Analysis at the univariate, bivariate, and multivariate levels was conducted utilizing descriptive statistics, simple linear regression, and multiple regression, respectively. Findings support the notion that STS is a significant concern for the profession, as 48% (N = 246) of the sample met at least one of the criteria for PTSD (i.e., intrusion, hyperarousal, and/or avoidance) as a function of STS. Nearly 11% (N = 56), a significant minority, met the full criteria for PTSD as a function of STS. The final analysis, which considered all significant risk and protective factors from previous analyses, revealed the total number of hours addressing trauma per week and the degree of current negative impact of childhood trauma as the most salient risk factors and emotion regulation, emotional separation, and personal self-care as the most salient protective factors. Implications for social work and recommendations for future research were discussed.