Second-Hand Trauma: What it is and What to Do About it

Why was I so agitated in class today? Why is my patience so low this morning? Why am I not more motivated to teach this morning and where has all my focus gone? As teachers, these are questions that we have all asked ourselves at one point or another. They are questions that are - unfortunately - all too familiar to us, and they are the type of questions that if left unaddressed, can lead to not only teacher burnout but a private inner struggle as well. These questions stem from a very real source known as second-hand trauma and it is the silent killer that is taking both educators and teaching staff alike out of the education field one defeated and exhausted broken heart at a time.

 

First-Hand Trauma vs. Second-Hand Trauma

 

In this blog post we are going to talk about second-hand trauma, however, in order to understand second-hand trauma we first have to understand what first-hand trauma is. First-hand trauma is direct trauma, and according to an article by Harvard Medical School entitled Past Trauma May Haunt Your Future Health, these negative first-hand experiences, “can trigger emotional and even physical reactions that can make you more prone to a number of different health conditions”(2019). These health conditions can range from physical ailments like heart complications and obesity to psychological distress like social anxiety or depression. These types of physical and mental conditions are just some of the many illnesses that even our most passionate teachers and educational staff are bringing into the classroom with them. So when we add second-hand trauma into the mix, without the proper precautions and reinforcements in place, what we really have is a recipe for disaster.

 

So when we talk about second-hand trauma what we are really talking about is indirect trauma. Second-hand trauma, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, is the traumatic stress and emotional duress that results when a person hears about the first-hand trauma experiences of another individual (www.nctsn.org). And yes - you read that right. Just hearingabout a traumatic event that another person has experienced or is experiencing can add a whole new layer of trauma onto the person that is receiving the information. This means that not just teachers, but social workers, nurses and other medical professionals, law enforcement, counselors, pastors, priests and other religious leaders - basically anyone with a job that has a service component to it has or will at some point experience second-hand trauma. And many of these careers work with children and families from low-income, violent, crime-infested communities, so because of that the chances of experiencing second-hand trauma for many of these professionals rises exponentially. Social inequities and cultural injustices create unique needs that result in negative experiences among different communities and households, but when those unique needs and negative experiences start impacting those outside of the community or household that is when second-hand trauma occurs.

 

How Second-Hand Trauma Impacts Teachers

 

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma (nea.org), which most likely means that more than half of all teachers at one point or another have experienced some form of second-hand trauma. Additionally, while I couldn’t find any data on how many educators leave the profession specifically because of second-hand trauma I do know that it is one of the contributing factors for why about 8% of teachers in the U.S. inevitably end up walking away from education. According to a Washington Post article entitled Where Have All the Teachers Gone, educators want to be better compensated for the stress they have to endure while on the job (2017), and some of that stress stems from the trauma that is passed onto them by the students and young people that they serve.

 

So what does this look like for teachers? Well most of us already know because we have experienced the effects of second-hand trauma ourselves, but for those who are unsure it looks like sleepless nights because a student told you they have no food at home. It looks like recurring episodes of anxiety when a student that you know has been sexually abused leaves your sight everyday to go home. It looks like immense guilt and struggles with low self-worth because you don’t feel like you are meeting the needs of all your at-risk learners. It looks like anger, sadness, bitterness and resentment towards the field of education itself. It looks like loneliness, extreme fatigue, mood swings and an overall lack of patience by someone who has considered everyone else’s situations and needs but their own. Second-hand trauma for teachers shows up in the form of lack of focus, struggles with connecting with co-workers and/or teammates, and ultimately teacher burnout and an exit from the field of education altogether because, let’s be honest, who can carry such a heavy emotional load? For many teachers second-hand trauma is the hand shoving them out the door of a career path they once held near and dear to their hearts - but there is hope. After many years of it going unrecognized teacher advocates and other adjacent organizations are finally doing something about second-hand trauma and the impact it is having on our country’s educators.

 

Who Out There Cares and What Are Those People Doing About It?

 

In education it’s easy to feel like the work that is being done isn’t appreciated or is going unnoticed, but the truth of the matter is there are organizations out there that are just as concerned about how second-hand trauma is impacting teachers as the teachers themselves are. For example, the National Education Association along with the National Council of State Education issued several recommendations for how to deal with this rising issue, and it included providing educators with comprehensive mental health and employee assistance support programs (nea.org). This is why more and more schools are offering teachers with counseling options and reminding them what mental health supports are available to them through their insurance. 

 

Also, the Happy Teacher Revolution group is an online community made up of teachers and similar stake-holders that aim to support the mental well-being of those who serve in education. To sign up visit their website at happyteacherrevolution.com and there, educators can find a support group in their area that allows them to share about their struggles and experiences in education. The Happy Teacher Revolution’s main goal is to provide community and give teachers a safe place to share their thoughts, feelings and perspectives about the work that they do. Along those same lines, there is a Facebook group called Teaching with Mental Health in Mind that provides teachers with daily posts, live motivational/informative videos and other resources specifically aimed to help teachers cope with the mental strain that serving in education can bring. Using these resources will not only improve the mental well-being of our teachers, but it can assist in supporting teacher retention as well. 

 

The organizations mentioned above are just a few of the many organizations that are working to make the job of educators more bearable, but what’s important for educators to remember here is that the decision to put their well-being before the well-being of others starts with them. Yes, these organizations and resources exist, but at the end of the day, in order for teachers to not only deal with their own personal trauma but the second-hand trauma that is inflicting them, they must first make their own physical and mental health a priority. In times like these, with civil unrest on the rise and a pandemic forcing many teachers out of their comfort zones it is important to find ways to cope with the many thoughts that run through our minds and consequently affect our bodies. Trauma is real. Second-hand trauma is real - and the worst thing any educator could do is ignore it. Teachers are the lifeline between high scores, happy students, satisfied parents and productive teams, so as a community, instead of ignoring the impacts of second-hand trauma on teachers let’s use the resources that are out there to support our teachers. After all, teachers spend a majority of the time rescuing others - now it’s time for someone to rescue them.