The Next Wave of Substance Use Disorder

Empathy and Emotional Witnessing

Did the witnessing of the traumatic events of 9-11 leave you feeling traumatized even though you had no direct exposure to the traumatic events of this day? Has a loved one noticed a negative transformation in your beliefs, worldview, spirituality or inter-personal relationships since the emotional, visual and auditory witnessing of the horrific events of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School?

Today, exposure to the trauma of others is not solely in crisis role jobs. Professional populations like our First Responders are witnessing increased levels of trauma exposure due to the overwhelming loss of young lives resulting from the Opioid crisis. Foster Care Workers who bear witness to the darkest side of humankind and in the past decade our School Personnel because of the growing number of students in the classroom who meet criteria for three or more adverse childhood experiences.

Our exposure to traumatic experiences is staggering. We are becoming chronically exposed to increasing levels of daily trauma at rates that are beginning to overwhelm our personal and professional organizational systems. An empathetic sense is a highly valued skill and trait when working with those who suffer from trauma. Ironically, the very character trait that allows helping professionals to care for others through traumatic experiences; is the very trait that will increase a helper’s likelihood of needing help from traumatic exposure themselves.

There are several helping populations like our teachers who have assumed this professional role in which they are untrained and unaware of risk and protective factors to vicarious trauma. An empathetic sense is one of the "Big Five" personality traits has been identified as an important dimension in determining who will make for a good teacher. (Costa, P. and McCrae, R. 1992). While these skills and experience can garner great respect among peers, parents and community, teachers unknowingly lack the education that will protected them from the chronic exposure of auditory and the emotional witnessing of the traumatic experiences of their students in their classroom.

We must be aware of a silent internal disruption that can creep into a teacher’s system as this collective population becomes inundated by an internal sensory experience that shifts from secondary trauma witness Vicarious Traumatization.

Reducing Risk

Preventing Negative Transformation and Coping Skills

Never have we been more aware as a society and in our education communities of the Big “T” s that are traumatizing our schools such as school shootings. These horrific acts of violence will have a lasting effect extending far beyond those who suffered and witnessed a direct impact.

We must also be aware of the increasing prevalence of the daily smaller “t”s in an educators life such as the adverse childhood experiences of students in the classroom that doesn't garner front page news and 24/7 media attention. While the prevalence of vicarious trauma in the profession of mental health counselors and other professional populations has been well established (VT; McCann & Pearlman,1990) vicarious trauma in other non-crisis worker populations such as educators is relatively unexplored.

It is critical on a personal level to our teachers and the organizational level of our schools that school leadership, administration and teachers become aware of this silent phenomenon and unidentified occupational hazard. Reducing risk and increasing protective factors will require an integrated approach that incorporates and allows for both personal and organizational systems of care.

Signs of impact to school personnel are chronic absenteeism, impact in their spiritual beliefs, world views, detachment, and coping skills. The indirect outcome of this unidentified occupational hazard can increase likelihood of a negative transformation of a school personnel's cognitive schema's and substance use disorder.

My daily work experiences involve repeated exposure to the suffering of my students. I feel responsible for their safety and for their well-being.
— 5th Grade Teacher
My students’ issues feel so personal to me. I re-experience the impact of my own trauma, and feel shuttered and drained.
— High School Teacher

Educators Today. Organizations Tomorrow.

As trauma begins to weave its way into our daily lives and communities, we are all vulnerable to Vicarious Traumatization. Our exposure using technology and our chronic exposure to emotional, auditory and direct witnessing of both the daily Big T's and the smaller t's must not be ignored.

This silent phenomenon is already showing signs in our general population through negative coping behaviors such as numbing and self-medicating through substance misuse and abuse. No one is immune. Crisis populations, or non-crisis professional populations such as our Schools, Lawyers, Judges, Counselors, our Media and our helping professions are increasingly vulnerable.

Without the proper training or prevention many will be at increasingly high risk for the next wave of Substance Use Disorder.

By Suzanne Spencer M.S.
Civic Activist, Human & Organizational Development Consultant