My beautiful daughter was born with a day planner in one hand and a suitcase in another. While she was still a teenager, she began traveling the world, working in orphanages and schools, feeding the hungry, and boldly staring into the face of human suffering.
During a brief stint, Jess landed back in the States and lived near us while she worked for a humanitarian organization. She was one of a select team of individuals who trained for community disaster response–complete with her own HAZMAT suit. Then in 2004, she volunteered to be one of the first wave of responders on Nias Island in the aftermath of the worst recorded tsunami in history.
While she was on the island, she experienced trauma and devastation unlike anything any of us could imagine. She returned to the U.S. with debilitating symptoms. The organization she’d worked with did little to explain her symptoms or how we could help her. As her parents, we were on our own to figure out that this was what PTSD looked like. We dove into a crash course on how to help.
A recent article in The New York Times by Anne Barnard reports how psychologists in the Gaza Strip who have served residents there by treating trauma are now suffering from their own PTSD.
“I am so afraid in this building,” a veteran psychologist said, pointing out his sixth-story window. Several apartments here, he said, are crammed with 60 people or more as residents take in fleeing relatives.
“They [the bombs] may hit it at any time. There is no safe place. Psychologically, that is the problem.”
Before my daughter experienced PTSD, I unaware of the need for care for humanitarian workers. Months after she returned from Nias Island, I met a forensic psychologist from the Headington Institute who explained Jessica’s symptoms to me. My daughter had experienced both vicarious trauma and direct trauma in numerous significant aftershocks that took place during the months she was on Nias Island.
Mission and outreach organizations need to take an active role in caring for their workers and their families. Many organizations provide little or no aftercare or education for employees and their families who experience traumatic events directly or vicarious trauma. The Headington Institute can help explain trauma and PTSD, provide training, as well as helpful information.
If someone you know works in a job or ministry that exposes them to distressing stories, witnessing violence, poverty, and disaster, they can benefit from the resources Headington provides. I’m extremely grateful for the role they played in healing for our family.
What about you? Have you or someone you love experienced vicarious trauma? How have you coped with your symptoms. Share your story with us.