Systemic racism is not new to the fabric of American life, neither are state-sanctioned acts of violence against BIPOC individuals. Over the past several years we’ve been exposed to a large number of images, videos and first-hand accounts of brutality and violence towards BIPOC peoples. Exposure to these media and witnessing the suffering they cause in others can be sources of trauma in and of themselves, known as secondary trauma. Secondary trauma frequently presents with the same physiological and psychological symptoms we expect from primary trauma. Individuals who’ve personally witnessed or been the victim of similar acts at the hands of police are more vulnerable to secondary trauma, as are those who are part of communities who know this violence is possible or more likely.
Community members who provide emotional support to others in the wake of racist violence can be affected as well. This includes more than helping professionals. Vicarious Trauma can occur in friends, family, and community members who are the “rocks” and listening ears of their communities. Vicarious trauma, just like secondary or primary, can mirror symptoms of PTSD. The Counseling Center has created this guide to promote awareness of secondary and vicarious trauma in light of the ongoing public health crisis of systemic racism in the US and abroad, and to help support community members managing these experiences.
Signs of Secondary or Vicarious Trauma
- Difficulty concentrating or persisting in tasks.
- Feelings of numbness, hopelessness, of being overwhelmed.
- Experiencing trauma imagery- not just media or memories, but visualizations of described events.
- Physical and emotional hyper vigilance for threats or danger.
- Physically or emotionally withdrawing from others particularly salient for vicarious trauma among community/family/friend “rocks” or helpers and may be harder to detect.
- Spiritual doubt and worry.
- Fundamental shifts in beliefs about the world, people, and the future.
General Tips for Support for Students
- Who is the person within your friend group that others usually seek out for support? Check in on how they are doing- helpers need support too but may be the least likely to ask for it.
- Do not assume that trauma only exists in individuals directly involved with distressing events.
- Let students know about Counseling Center resources.
- Individual Counseling: Brief Individual Counseling and one-time Let’s Talk conversations.
- Affinity Spaces: Let’s Connect Now for BIPOC Students, Empower Support Group
- Recognize that different students may have different needs and emphasize a willingness to meet students where they are. Whenever possible, be flexible with your expectations.
- Promote and practice self-care.
- When students and colleagues of color discuss or disclose experiences of racism, believe them. Do not minimize what happened. Listen and respond with validation. You can respond by using a phrase like:
- “I appreciate you trusting me with that. You have every right to be hurt by that behavior.”
- “I’m here to support you. If you want additionally support, we can talk about resources together.”
You are also invited to seek assistance from professionals in Campus Ministry, ALANA Services, the Women’s Center, and the Counseling Center, who look forward to working with you.