Newsletter #428 – Secondary Trauma Victims

This week, Time magazine shows a cover photograph of a woman in Japan, apparently overwhelmed by her circumstances and surrounding devastation. The magazine describes the suffering and remarkable resilience of the Japanese people but there is little mention of what sometimes are known as secondary trauma victims. These include family members and friends far away from the disaster zone, unable to contact their loved ones, feeling helpless and intensely anxious. Secondary trauma victims also include first responders, rescue workers, medical personnel and others on the scene who experience exhaustion, compassion fatigue, burnout and the emotional drain of seeing so much suffering. Closer to home, secondary traumatic stress comes to emergency room personnel, firefighters, friends of people involved in car accidents, families of combat veterans, or those who know innocent victims of criminal violence.

An article in The Counseling Psychologist (February, 2011) discusses how business and social service organizations can help. Churches, schools, counselors, coaches, leaders and others can help as well, even without rushing to disaster zones where well-intentioned, self-appointed care-givers sometimes get in the way and hinder relief efforts instead of helping. In addition to prayer and donations, how can we stimulate help?

  • Be sensitive and available to secondary trauma victims who often are forgotten.
  • Encourage the recognition that it is common and acceptable to experience exhaustion, sadness, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Caregivers and family members sometimes feel guilty about their own feelings. Some believe that overwork, self-deprivation, and determination are marks of honor or that only the weak succumb to fatigue or despair. There is value in recognizing that secondary trauma is normal, that it is OK to feel exhausted, to grieve, to cry.
  • Be supportive. Caregivers sometimes comment that they can manage the demands if they feel “supported, validated, and valued by their” supervisors, colleagues and others.
  • When possible, encourage secondary trauma victims to utilize stress management and relaxation strategies. Remind them to get rest, exercise, and eat well.
  • Never overlook the spiritual support that comes from other believers and from God who sustains us in times of stress.

How have you helped secondary stress victims in ways that could inform the rest of us?


  1. I have not been able to help these trauma vitems in Japan, but as I watch the tv and see what is happening to them. Such things as the farmaers having to through the milk away and water getting scarse. I wonder about the women who are breast feeding their babies. The radiation must be in their milk also. We watch all this happening from a distance, and I think we are in some kind of trauma just observing it also. What can the nations do to help get these people back on their feet? Milk sent over there for nursing mothers and water sent over their for the population, would it get radiation in it also while waiting to be delivered?
    Thank you,
    Virginia Ross


  2. As believers we have to open up our eyes and our hearts and really see the people around us no matter how busy and crowded our lives become. It isn’t always necessary to actually ‘do’ anything specific, though it might be, but just acknowledging another’s pain means they know they are not isolated and alone. If we are willing to listen, the Holy Spirit will direct us to the people we can encourage and show us how. He is not going to ask us to do what we are incapable of.


    1. AM and Virginia, I appreciate your responses and your sensitivity. Sometimes the most we can do is pray and look for opportunities to care as best we can where God had placed us. I read some time ago that among the people who are most forgotten in times like these are the victim’s relatives in our own communities. Sometimes finding these people and expressing our care can be something that is appreciated (if we do this with sensitivity) and easier to do because the help is given in our own communities.


  3. Dear Gary, I’m weeping as I read your post about secondary trauma victims. I’ve been helping them (in Japan) out by baking cookies and bread, by listening to stories and doing whatever I can do. At the same time, I am just now realizing that I’m a secondary trauma victim myself. I have been trying to be upbeat, and busy and helpful and resourceful and untiring, but I’m tired after a month of nonstop work and of feeling earthquakes every day (1022 so far). There is so very much to do that it’s hard to imagine slowing down for a even a minute. I am not as helpful as I can be though without taking time for myself but I feel guilty when I do. We just got back from a trip up north. I’m exhausted. I’m covered in grit. I need to clean up. I need to process stuff. I’m struggling with how to do that when I have a husband who doesn’t appear to need to and no one close by to do that with. Please encourage people to not forget their friends who are working with people who have experienced great trauma. I think the aftermath of this earthquake/tsunami/reactor issue in Japan is going to be with us for a LONG time. It makes me realize that I, like many other people, have basically forgotten that people are still “digging out” from earthquakes in Myanmar, New Zealand, Chile, China and other places. We could spend our whole lives being compassionate if we dared! Perhaps the important thing is to remember that someone, somewhere needs us to be a listening ear and an encouraging friend. Thanks for letting me ramble. I needed a listening ear myself just now!


    1. Katie, I do not feel that this is rambling at all. I hope some of those who responded to my post on Secondary Trauma Victims recognize that they can start to help by connecting with people like you. Your post is deeply moving to me. Please let me/us know how you are coping. And remember that recognizing your compassion fatigue is a healthy first step in dealing with it. Thanks so much for sharing so honestly.


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