Trauma patients can indirectly affect the physical health of social workers

Exposure to traumatized client populations can have an indirect negative influence on the physical health of clinical social workers through secondary traumatic stress, Georgia State Distinguished University Professor Brian Bride revealed in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Bride and his co-authors, Jacquelyn Lee of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Ruth Gottfried of the David Yellin Academic College of Education, documented the prevalence of secondary traumatic stress (STS) in a national sample of clinical social workers. They then examined the relationship between exposure to client trauma, secondary traumatic stress and the perceived health of clinical social workers.

“We captured the subjects’ perceptions about their physical health based on how they said they felt,” said Bride, who developed the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale and received a number of honors for his research in this area. He directs the School of Social Work in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

Eighty-nine percent of social workers provide trauma-related services at least “occasionally,” and 53 percent engage in trauma work “often,” according to the study, which was published in the Clinical Social Work Journal last September.

Social workers who report a higher percentage of clients with post-traumatic stress disorder experience higher levels of secondary traumatic stress, the researchers’ analysis showed. In turn, higher levels of secondary traumatic stress are associated with perceptions of poorer health.

“While it is widely known that providing services to people who have experienced trauma may negatively impact the mental health of clinicians, not much research had been done on the impact of STS on their physical health,” Bride said.

He plans to conduct follow-up research that will include the examination of physical health records to support the subjects’ perceptions.

Bride and his co-authors believe their findings call for increased attention toward prevention of secondary traumatic stress symptoms among direct service providers, given its prevalence and potential impact on their physical health and well-being.

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