By Randy McCall
As devastating as the effects of crime are on the victims of crime and their families and friends, we should also remember the toll taken on those who work with these people: law enforcement officers, medical personnel, and victim advocates.
All of these people voluntarily offer their help and services -- sometimes at risk of their lives -- to help victims of crime. To state the obvious: police officers help by solving the crime or capturing the offender; medical personal provide physical treatment; and victim advocates work with the victim at the scene, during the investigation and trial, and afterwords, helping the victim on the road to reestablishing a sense of normality.
These people often see the worst the world has to offer. Police deal with the criminals and the worst of human behavior, and are often the first to view scenes of nightmarish violence. Medical personnel treat the cut, bruised and broken bodies, trying to mend the physical damage. Victim advocates can serve in several roles: as crisis scene advocates, who arrive at the crime scene shortly after police (often seeing scenes of violence and bloodshed) and who provide immediate support and assistance to a victim who is often in a state of shock and severe emotional upset, and they continue to act as a liaison between the victim and law enforcement, until such time as the case actually goes to trial.
Once this point is reached, another advocate -- one working for the court's victim / witness program -- starts to provide support and information during the long period of the trial, and tries to help the victim deal with a sometimes uncaring justice system and the many possible long term effects of crime victimization.
After the trial, should the victim be in need, there are many support groups and victim aid organizations that continue to supply emotional support and aid for as long as needed.
These unselfish people see -- and help others deal with -- pain, sorrow, grief, rage, and the results of violence and malice, on almost a daily basis. They easily become emotionally involved with the people they are helping. The repeated exposure to these scenes can, over time, cause the person to experience what is known variously as: secondary or vicarious trauma, critical incident stress, compassion fatigue, or simply burnout.
This secondary trauma can cause the service worker to become another victim, as all that they have seen and had to deal with becomes a weight too heavy to bear. It can being to affect their behavior, their way of thinking, how they perform on the job, and how they relate to their loved ones.
Some of the signs of secondary or caregiver trauma can include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Fatigue, loss of energy, listlessness , loss of efficiency
- Sadness, depression, withdrawal from others or from activities, loss of faith in others or in previously strongly-held beliefs
- Apathy, indifference, emotional numbness, a sense of demoralization
- Inability to work well with victims or really hear what they are saying; "tuning them out"
- Confusion, difficulty making decisions, difficulty concentrating
- Quickness to make the worst possible conclusion
- Loss of emotional control; quick to anger, grieve, sadness
- A sense they have lost the capacity of happiness, creativity, control over their lives
- A sense of isolation
- Nightmares, sleep disturbances, nervousness, easy to startle, difficulty relaxing
- Abrupt changes in habit and the use (or misuse of) drugs, alcohol, or other negative behaviors
Of course, all these professions recognize their personnel can become victims in their own right to secondary trauma, and have well-established programs and support groups within their various agencies to help prevent, detect and aid those officers, advocates or support personnel who fall victim to this most serious of occupational hazards.
At this time of year, when we celebrate so much, take a few moments to think of the people out there, right now, in the cold, at all hours of the day and night, in the way of harm both physical and mental, hoping only to help others.