March 25, 2005

Conference to explore ‘compassion fatigue’

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illustration by Medical Art Group

Conference to explore ‘compassion fatigue’

Sometimes, even the helpers need help.

It's well known that those who directly experience intense tragedy or trauma can become susceptible to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Lesser known, but on the rise, is a variant of the disorder that can afflict those who have dedicated their lives to caring for others — secondary traumatic stress syndrome.

Physicians, nurses and other health care workers are especially susceptible. They are the ones who attend to the critically, sometimes horrifically, injured; break the news to a shocked family about a loved one's death; grow emotionally attached to terminally ill cancer or transplant patients; and basically bear witness to more pain, fear, confusion and suffering than most people can imagine.

“If we experience something traumatic or horrible, we should react appropriately,” said Larry Prisco Jr., a licensed clinical social worker (L.C.S.W.) with Vanderbilt's Department of Social Work. “Someone can become symptomatic of secondary traumatic stress when they can't let go of the things that cause them grief, fear, sorrow or anger. If, three months after the traumatic event, they're still acting like it just happened, they need help.”

Other signs of secondary traumatic stress include persistent, recurring flashbacks to a traumatic event, trouble focusing at work or at home, sleep disturbances or a loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable.

Awareness of secondary traumatic stress syndrome, sometimes called compassion fatigue, rose following large-scale disasters such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

These events highlighted the stress experienced by those who responded; the firefighters, police officers, paramedics and others.

While not on such a grand or public scale, health care workers experience these kinds of stresses as part of their regular work life.

Recognizing the signs of secondary traumatic stress and developing strategies to cope with it and avoid it will be the subject of a sold-out, all-day workshop on March 31 presented by the Department of Social Work. “The Personal Costs of Caring: Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Helping Professions,” will be presented by Jo Pryce, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama, and David Pryce, M.S.S.W.

According to Prisco, who works in VUMC's Emergency Department and has taken part in prior secondary traumatic stress training sessions, developing proper coping tools is crucial.

“Things like diet and exercise are important, but so are things like taking vacations and learning to leave work behind and developing the ability to let go and enjoy life elsewhere,” Prisco said. “And it's vital to have someone to turn to, whether it's a family member, co-worker, social worker or whoever. It all has to begin with people you trust.”

Though sold out, there is a possibility that another conference on secondary traumatic stress can be scheduled. Those interested should contact Dan Ramage, L.C.S.W., at or at 936-0392.