Drink and Drugs News DDN May 2020 - Page 14

MENTAL HEALTH DOUBLE IMPACT R Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is alive and kicking among substance misuse professionals, says Victoria Hancock ecent research into employees at a national substance misuse charity showed that frontline staff who were regularly exposed to their victims’ traumas often suffered symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These included intrusion (involuntary thoughts and images), flashbacks and hyperarousal, and were a result of indirect trauma ie through the retelling of the client’s own trauma. The intensity of symptoms was such that half of substance misuse professionals who took part in our Birmingham City University study were found to be suffering from ‘high’ or ‘severe’ secondary traumatic stress (STS). As author of An exploratory study on secondary traumatic stress amongst substance misuse professionals, I’d noted there was a lack of research into the issue of frontline staff working with individuals presenting with trauma and going on to experience STS. This was especially the case when it came to substance misuse professionals – in fact, this was the first time such a study has been done in the UK, although previous research in the USA and Australia has identified these issues. Of 225 substance misuse professionals who took part in the American survey, 19 per cent showed symptoms of PTSD – in other words they were suffering secondary trauma. In Australia the figure was similar, at almost 20 per cent. Our UK study findings highlighted that STS among substance misuse practitioners warranted further investigation, especially in term of client, 14 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • MAY 2020 staff and service-level outcomes. Organisations should be looking into this area to help manage and promote both a healthy workforce and environment. Senior staff members should be trained to identify employees with STS and organise support for them – whether that means allowing the affected individual to take a leave of absence, receive counselling, or engage with them on regular debriefing exercises. Organisations should nurture a supportive culture for staff to achieve a work-life balance, and one of the ways they can achieve this is by helping to identify a range of coping mechanisms unique to individual staff members when working with traumatised clients. EMOTIONAL STRESS Clients’ needs are often complex and diverse, including comorbidity of substance misuse and mental illness. As a consequence, staff can be exposed to vivid descriptions of trauma, as well as accounts of neglect and abuse. The result is direct emotional distress, now recognised as STS. Workplace stress has been recognised within the health profession, but this has usually centred around doctors and nurses. Other professions where STS and its negative effects on individuals has been specifically identified include social workers, mental health nurses, sexual assault therapists, journalists and asylum evaluators/interpreters. The condition can manifest through symptoms such as depression, despair and cynicism, and it is common to experience alienation from friends, family and colleagues, as well as a range of both physical and psychological symptoms. From an organisational perspective, individuals with STS are much more likely to be less efficient team members than their ‘healthier’ colleagues, due mainly to tiredness. However, it’s not all bad news. A previous study on social workers looking after children said exposure to trauma actually made them better at their job, because they were able to empathise more. There was also ‘personal growth’ for the individual in that it made them value relationships more, develop wisdom and be grateful for what they had. For some it even altered WWW.DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS.COM