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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Preventing vicarious traumatization of mental health therapists: identifying protective practices Harrison, Richard Lawrence


This qualitative study was designed to identify protective practices that mitigate risks of Vicarious Traumatization (VT) among trauma therapists. The sample included six peer-nominated experienced therapists, trained at the masters or doctoral level, who self-identified as having managed well in this work. Narrative data was collected through interviews with individual co-participants, who were asked, "How do you manage to sustain your personal and professional wellbeing, given the challenges of your work with seriously traumatized clients?" Data analysis was based upon Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, and Zilber's (1998) typology of narrative analysis, with a primary focus on thematic content analysis within and across participants' narratives. The research findings yielded twelve major themes that describe protective practices engaged by exemplary trauma therapists: countering isolation (in professional, personal and spiritual realms); developing mindful self awareness; consciously expanding perspective to embrace complexity; openness to the unknown; sustaining and renewing hope; active optimism and problem solving; holistic self-care; maintaining clear boundaries; invoking imagery, metaphor, and ritual; exquisite empathy; professional satisfaction; and creating meaning. The novel finding that empathic engagement with traumatized clients appeared to be protective challenges previous conceptualizations of VT and points to exciting new directions for research and theory, as well as applications to practice. Participants also described experiences of vicarious post-traumatic growth. The findings confirm and extend previous recommendations for ameliorating VT and underscore the ethical responsibility shared by employers, educators, professional bodies, and individual practitioners to create time and space to address this serious problem. Participants recommend opportunities for regular supervision, support and validation (including group-based interaction), self-care (including personal therapy, as needed), and developing self-awareness within and beyond the workplace. They think taking care of the caregivers is an organizational responsibility as well as a personal one. Although the research design precludes generalizing from the data, the knowledge generated herein may be helpful to others in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, social work, psychiatric nursing, and related health care disciplines, at the levels of education, training, and practice.

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