Trauma fractures comprehension as a pebble shatters a windshield. The wound at the site of impact spreads across the field of vision, obscuring reality and challenging belief.

Jane Leavy

African youth workers may experience Secondary Traumatic Stress, Vicarious Trauma or Compassion Fatigue. These are clinical terms for the stresses and trauma you may face as someone seeking to help young women in your youth activities. If you are a youth work leader, or a youth club director, it is essential that you recognise this in yourself and your youth workers.

Secondary trauma appears suddenly. You may experience it when you witness someone being attacked, even if you were a passer-by. In your youth work, a single instance of listening to a young woman or girl relate an incident that she has experienced could trigger secondary trauma. This might happen when:

  • You listen to a girl disclose that she has – or is being – raped, assaulted, or abused.
  • A girl in the youth club, one of your fellow staff or volunteers, dies unexpectedly.
  • You visit one of the girls at home, and witness her being shouted at by her parents, or encounter other challenges in her life.

Vicarious trauma is a longer-term reaction to the accumulation of exposure to traumatic events. It happens when a person faces continuous exposure to trauma. Some examples might include:

  • A mentor repeatedly hears about the violence that her mentee is experiencing.
  • Repeatedly hearing about the experiences of young women from her ethnic group facing adversity due to their gender and ethnicity.
  • Routinely visiting a project in a neighbourhood where you regularly witness abuses and suffering.

Empathy Fatigue

  • Empathy or compassion fatigue has been seen in many professionals who work with people who experience trauma. It’s been seen in lawyers, social workers, medical professionals, psychologists and people working with university students and youth workers.
  • Compassion Fatigue is cumulative, like vicarious trauma. Many have called it the ‘cost of caring’.
  • Good youth workers are often very invested in the success and wellbeing of the young people they work with. Often we have got into this work to make a difference. Women youth workers are often conscientious and prone to perfectionism, aspiring to be self-giving. These qualities that make us good at what we do also make us more likely to burnout. This is even more likely in women with low levels of social support, high stress levels, and personal trauma experience.
  • Bottling up emotions and not having opportunities to talk about the challenges we face as youth workers and how they affect us also makes us more prone to burnout through empathy fatigue.

Reflection Questions

  1.  Whilst these definitions may be new to you, are you aware of incidents that have affected you or your colleagues?
  2. How did you deal with these?

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