Spot the Signs: Supporting Survivors and Recognizing Vicarious Trauma

The Department of Defense (DoD) Safe Helpline is the Department’s sole crisis support service specially designed for members of the DoD community affected by sexual assault. Safe Helpline is secure, confidential, anonymous, and available 24/7, worldwide. The Safe Helpline staff provides live, one-on-one support to survivors, their families, and other DoD stakeholders. It is operated by RAINN through a contract with the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

As a friend, family member, or service provider of a survivor of sexual assault in the DoD community, your support is vital to their long-term wellbeing. You may experience stress after continued exposure to the trauma a survivor has experienced and shared with you. These feelings are common and are often referred to as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue.

You are a meaningful part of a survivor’s support system; someone they can trust and lean on. By taking care of yourself and checking in on your own mental health and wellbeing, you ensure your ability to continue to show up for them. Recognizing the signs of vicarious trauma and learning about the resources that can help are important first steps in caring for yourself as a supporter of a survivor.

If you are a military service provider, such as a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) or Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Victim Advocate (SAPR VA), you provide vital care, information, and resources that make a difference in the lives of survivors every day. At the same time, you may experience vicarious trauma due to the difficult nature of your work. Vicarious trauma can often be conflated with “burnout,” but it is important to know that vicarious trauma cannot be improved by time away from work in the same way. Rather, it is characterized by feelings of preoccupation with the trauma experienced by your clients, which can play out in ways that can be difficult to manage. Some common examples include:

● Avoiding work or interacting with clients.

● Feeling emotionally numb.

● Fatigue or difficulty sleeping.

● Excessively worrying about dangers in the world.

If you are a friend or family member of a military survivor of sexual assault, you play an important role in believing and supporting them. Sometimes, supporting the survivor in your life may feel overwhelming, and you may start to take on the trauma experienced by the survivor in your life. Some common examples include:

  •  Loss of joy toward things you once enjoyed.
  •  Flashbacks or thoughts about your own trauma.
  •  Dreaming about the trauma shared with you.
  •  Hopelessness.
  •  Feeling trapped by stress or trauma.

If you are experiencing vicarious trauma, please know that you are not alone. While there are many strategies and resources that can help you, it may also be beneficial to connect with professional mental health resources to ensure you get the support you may need. A few activities to try include:

  •  Practicing self-care, which might include meditation, yoga, or journaling, among other activities.
  •  Checking-in with your own support system.
  •  Engaging in hobbies such as walking, painting, or cooking.
  •  Creating personal boundaries, which might look like silencing your cell phone when practicing self-care or spending time in spaces that do not remind you of the trauma experienced by the survivor in your life.

Additionally, Safe Helpline, operated by RAINN, is available 24/7 to support members of the military community affected by sexual assault, including friends, family members, and service providers. Safe Helpline staff provide confidential, anonymous, and secure support via the Telephone Helpline at 877-995-5247 and online at Safe Helpline staff can help connect you with additional resources including long-term mental health professionals.

If you are interested in identifying what self-care might look like for you, consider taking Safe Helpline’s self-paced educational program, Resiliency and Connection through Self-Care. This module explores how members of the DoD community can manage the effects of trauma using self-care strategies. The module is available to complete anonymously, or service providers can take the module for one-hour of D-SAACP continuing education unit credit via the Education Portal.