Monday, September 28, 2015

Dealing with Secondary Trauma

An e-mail thread on the Immprof listserv last week about trigger warnings triggered reflections on how we prepare students to deal with situations involving clients who have been traumatized.  Several people asked about what we do at the University of St. Thomas in our classes on dealing with secondary trauma, so here’s a quick summary. 

So many law school clinics work with clients and populations that have been through recent and historical traumas.  Students who have been traumatized themselves may unexpectedly find themselves reliving past traumas, may themselves be so resilient that such work does not pose particular challenges, or may respond to clients in unexpected ways as a result of trauma.  (In one of the e-mails, I shared the story of a clinic student who had a brother who had been tortured.  The student came to realize that they had subconsciously resented their asylum client for not having “suffered enough” in comparison to their brother. We were then able to work together to address those feelings that were getting in the way of representation).

And then the work itself may result in vicarious trauma.  (A slightly humorous Resilience Man describes vicarious trauma here.  Other similar resources that, some equally as cheesy and others traditionally somber, can be found at the Headington Institute).  Not sure we need to be giving students “trauma warnings,” but I do think we as a profession could do a better job at preparing our newer colleagues to face these challenges. 

So, what do we do?   We program in a few different offerings.

Resiliency: For those clinics that participate in our intensive two day orientation program, we budget 30 minutes for a quick introduction to resiliency.  Currently, Crixell Shell and I facilitate this exercise.  Crixell is our clinic office manager, and also an associate trainer with the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute which provides trainings on trauma and resiliency in Minnesota. STAR stands for Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience and is based out of Eastern Mennonite University. The program grew out of responses by faith communities in New York City to the 9/11 attacks. 

In brief, we use the imagery of seeing ourselves as trees in times of storm.  Our roots are our support systems, such as faith, social connections, family, friends and other supports. The trunk represents our personal characteristics and strengths. The branches are skills we can develop as individuals and the leaves are specific actions that are taken.  Weeds represent challenge, perhaps of our own making, that get in the way.  We ask students to spend a few minutes filling in their own resiliency trees.  This past August, when I led the exercise, I drew the tree on one of our white board walls and during the discussion time added student responses to the board.  At the end of the session, we hand out a list of resiliency tips.  Nothing terribly profound, but it gets people thinking.  (If readers would like our three page facilitator’s guide, email me at [email protected] ).

Dealing with Secondary TraumaWe have this class mid semester, and bring together three clinics (immigration, elder, and community justice).  We assign “The Caregiver’s Guide to Secondary Traumatic Stress,” produced in 2004 by the Center for Survivors of Torture in Dallas.  While that reading includes a self-test, we stopped using it because of psychology colleagues recommended another that is normed.  (the rest of the reading is still assigned).  We now use the Professional Quality of Life Scale (PROQOL), which is free and easy to use. It measures Compassion Satisfaction & Compassion Fatigue.  We ask students to take and score the test and turn in the results anonymously.  We track responses from semester to semester.  Our class consists of talking about the results (Jennifer Wright usually takes the lead), and then sharing stories about how we as professionals have faced and dealt with secondary trauma (usually Nekima Levy Pounds or me).  We break into small groups to have students share how they cope with stress and then come back together to wrap up by sharing with the whole group.   

Faith as a Foundation for Social Justice.  As a faith based institution, several of our clinics will dedicate a class to exploring issues of faith and social justice.  Martin Luther King’s A Letter from The Birmingham Jail often is assigned reading, but as each clinic that has this class does it separately, the readings are not uniform.  I have recently taken to assigning chapter 1 from Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell’s Our God is Undocumented, as Myers’ historical theology of the Tower of Babel as a symbol of mono-linguistic imperialism compliments an earlier reading assignment of my article, The Immigration Hotel.  Last spring I even invited a client to come and speak about her journey to safety and the role her faith plays in sustaining joy and hope in the face of terror.  Vicarious Resiliency, as well as vicarious trauma, is something we can pick up in this work, too. 

Health and Wellness:  We reserve one class for those clinics that wish to participate in what amounts to a health and wellness fair.  We usually have four to six options.  Students pick three to attend.  The biggest hits are always the chair masseuses from the Sister Rosalind Gefre Massage and Wellness Center. We’ve had sessions on aroma therapy, bike commuting, centering prayer, yoga, mindfulness, and health and wellness jeopardy. Pets and mental health (yes, we bring in dogs and puppies) has also been a popular offering.  We’re trying to send the message that self-care is an important habit to develop.

In terms of other resources, Jeff Baker blogged about Motivating Self-Care, a session presented by Brittany Stringfellow Otey,  Margaret Drew, Lynette Parker and me at the 2014 AALS Clinic Conference.   Those colleagues are great resources as well.

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Thank you for these terrific resources and the reminder to take time for recovery.

Posted by: Margaret Drew | Sep 28, 2015 4:57:29 PM

Virgil, Thank you for these terrific resources and the reminder to take time for recovery.

Posted by: Margaret Drew | Sep 28, 2015 4:57:49 PM

Virgil, Thank you for these terrific resources and the reminder to take time for recovery.

Posted by: Margaret Drew | Sep 28, 2015 4:57:56 PM

Virgil, Thank you for these terrific resources and the reminder to take time for recovery.

Posted by: Margaret Drew | Sep 28, 2015 4:58:20 PM

Lovely to have these important resources all in one place - thank you for sharing.

Posted by: Shana Tabak | Sep 29, 2015 6:07:50 PM

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