February 21, 2018

OVC Vicarious Trauma Toolkit
Access the OVC VTT.
Vicarious Trauma and Self-Care

According to the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), "Vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services, and other allied professions, due to their continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence. This work-related trauma exposure can occur from such experiences as listening to individual clients recount their victimization; looking at videos of exploited children; reviewing case files; hearing about or responding to the aftermath of violence and other traumatic events day after day; and responding to mass violence incidents that have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths."
Professionals who are responsible for responding on and off campus to incidents such as those listed above may find themselves experiencing vicarious trauma. If not handled in an effective fashion, the short- and long-term effects can be detrimental, or devastating, to the well-being of those responders and their family, friends, and the community around them. If left unmanaged, stress from daily responsibilities or vicarious trauma can lead to burnout, which is a "...state of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual exhaustion resulting from chronic exposure to (or practice with) populations that are vulnerable or suffering." (Pines and Aronson, 1998)
Recognizing the symptoms that an individual might be approaching burnout is critical. Symptoms may include negative emotions, lack of motivation, sleep disturbances, social withdrawal or uncharacteristic interpersonal problems, thoughts that include "always" and "never" statements, and a sense of hopelessness. There are some advisable practices that professionals can implement to help alleviate stress and avoid burnout. Additionally, organizations that staff these professionals need to be cognizant of the dangers and proactive in implementing programs that effectively support personnel.
As an individual, implementing regular self-care activities is one of the most effective ways to manage stress, including that related to vicarious trauma. Some self-care practices include:
  • Regular exercise
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Journaling
  • Taking time away from work
  • Volunteering
  • Professional counseling or therapy
  • Humor, like watching cat videos or funny movies
Organizationally, having a foundational awareness of burnout and the detrimental effects is a key first step in managing this issue. Perhaps the most critical element of your organizational responsibility is to lead by example and incorporate self-care practices into your organizational practices, as well as your daily life as an individual.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has some helpful information on how to interact with someone who has experienced a critical incident.
  • Listen carefully. Be patient and sit with him or her for a few minutes.
  • Encourage him or her to go home, get some sleep, eat, or call a friend.
  • Leave if asked to, but make sure to leave behind a phone number in case they want to talk later.
  • Tell him or her to suck it up or get back to work.
  • Ask for details of the incident to satisfy your curiosity.
  • Get side-tracked telling a story about your own experience. 
NAMI also has a report available for download,  Preparing for the Unimaginable, which discusses best practices for how chiefs can safeguard officer mental health before and after mass casualty events.
Another resource to draw upon is the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit (VTT). In 2013, OVC awarded a grant to Northeastern University's Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice to work with stakeholders in the field of vicarious trauma to develop the VTT, which includes tools and resources tailored specifically to these fields that provide the knowledge and skills necessary for organizations to address the vicarious trauma needs of their staff. The VTT has specific tools for law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services, and victim services, in addition to the general information provided. The OVC Training and Technical Assistance Center provides a variety of training, including Compassion Fatigue/Vicarious Trauma Training (PDF) that covers:
  • Sources and Impact of Stress and Trauma
  • Indicators of Compassion Fatigue
  • Healthy Coping Strategies
  • Developing Resilience
  • Developing Personal and Agency Care Plans 
Taking care of the professionals who take care of others is a critical component in providing the best care for those in need. These are some tools that should prove useful in the effort to provide support.

REMS TA Donations and Volunteers Fact Sheet
Download the Donations and Volunteers Fact Sheet.
Managing Donations and Volunteers in Times of Disaster
Volunteering is a valuable part of every community. Volunteers and donations can come from all segments of society and can provide valuable roles in the preparedness for, response to, recovery from, and mitigation of disasters and emergencies. The volunteers themselves generally fall into one of two categories: affiliated volunteers, those who are attached to a recognized volunteer or nonprofit organization and are trained for specific disaster response activities, and unaffiliated volunteers, those who are not part of a recognized volunteer organization and who often have no formal training in emergency response. These unaffiliated volunteers, also known as spontaneous, convergent, emergent, or walk-in volunteers, are often motivated by a sudden desire to help others in times of trouble. To ensure an organization's capacity to utilize these volunteers and goods effectively and to avoid the paradox of people's willingness to volunteer interfering with disaster operations or causing a secondary issue, it is important to anticipate, plan for, and manage unsolicited donated goods and volunteers.
Planning teams at institutions of higher education (IHEs), those responsible for developing and revising emergency operations plans (EOPs) for their schools, in collaboration with their community partners, may consider including a donations and volunteer management annex for their EOPs. The annex could include such considerations as:
  • Developing and coordinating procedures for recruiting volunteers and additional staff.
  • Developing procedures to coordinate and approve volunteers and manage donations during an emergency.
  • Designating types of donations and volunteers and how they will be distributed/managed.
  • Designating who will be involved in external and internal processes.
  • How to communicate with organizations and individuals playing key roles in the process.
The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center (REMS TA Center) recently hosted a webinar on Managing Donations and Volunteers Before, During, and After School and Campus Emergency Events with presenters from the U.S. Department of Education, Federal Emergency Management Agency Voluntary Agency Coordination Group, REMS TA Center, and the former superintendent of Joplin, Missouri Schools. The webinar is available for on demand viewing and discusses managing donations and volunteers before, during, and after emergency events that impact school district, school, and campus communities. Presenters describe operational considerations for managing donations and volunteers from the federal and local perspective and share lessons learned from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as well as the 2011 tornado that impacted the Joplin School District. Supporting documents are available including the webinar presentation (PDF), a resource guide (PDF), and a donations and volunteers fact sheet (PDF).

Training and additional disaster services resources, including several related to volunteer and donation management, are available through the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that helps Americans improve the lives of their fellow citizens through service.

Professional Development Opportunities

Title:  Using Brief Interventions to Prevent Teen Dating Violence
Organization: National Institute of Justice and the Federal Interagency Workgroup on Teen Dating Violence
Date: February 26, 2018 at 1:00PM ET
Location: Online
Fee: Free
Title: L0489: Management of Spontaneous Volunteers in Disasters
Organization: Federal Emergency Management Agency Emergency Management Institute
Date: March 13, 2018
Location: Grants Pass, OR
Fee: Free
Title: The Impact of Emotional and Psychological Trauma in Policing: Understanding, Awareness, Resiliency, and Support
Organization: Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services
Dates and Locations:
  • June 19, 2018 in Winchester, VA
  • June 20, 2018 in Winchester, VA
Fee: Free

For additional trainings and events, access our searchable online calendar.

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This project was supported by Grant No. 2013-MU-BX-K011 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.