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Secondary Trauma: Why It’s So Hard to Get Help

DSC01889It’s telling that the term secondary survivors is a little too broad: it can refer to professionals who hear traumatic stories, friends of trauma survivors, and I’ve also heard it incorrectly used to describe children who witness domestic violence (they are direct survivors, since any threat to a child’s caretaker is experienced as a threat to the child). In this blog post, the secondary survivors we’ll talk about are non-professional individuals who support survivors of trauma.

Secondary survivors may be parents, children, siblings, friends.  They may willingly or unwillingly play a role in the survivor’s recovery.  Sometimes this role is active, such as helping the survivor with legal or logistical issues related to the trauma, finding a new car after an accident, accompanying the survivor to court to testify against a perpetrator or driving someone to therapy sessions. Other times it’s a passive role that someone may not have signed up for: dealing with an employee whose trauma symptoms are creating challenges, or a roommate that has unpredictable behavior or a spouse that has unexpectedly changed.  And of course, many times it may be both.

It’s impossible to cover everything secondary survivors need to know in one short blog post.  For one thing, the above paragraph probably provides a clue to the variety of secondary survivors, even more so than survivors. The other reason as that the literature on secondary trauma in family members is in its infancy and there is almost nothing for non-household supports.  There are studies validating an instrument to measure it and others to measure whether it’s a thing, but there’s a lot we don’t know: does the type of event the survivor experienced matter? how much does the severity matter? does the length of time spent with the survivor having PTSD symptoms matter? how much does the secondary survivor’s history matter? How do we treat it?  We don’t really know.

That said, here are some things that may be helpful:

1)   Knowledge is power: Learn about PTSD—both symptoms and treatment. This is helpful both for understanding what you’re seeing, but also to observe yourself

2)   Make sure you have lots of support: knowing that secondary survivors can experience difficulties of their own should encourage you to do lots of things to take care of yourself—tending to your social, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs through routine and if necessary seeking professional support.

3)   Talk to others who share your experience: The drive to talk with other people is how peer groups for family members of people dealing with difficult issues like Al-Anon, NAMI Family Support Group and Vietnam Veteran Wives groups. If there aren’t formal groups for secondary survivors, you can often find them for the direct survivors—and then see if you can connect with their family members.

Secondary Trauma: Why It’s So Hard to Get Help

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2014). Secondary Trauma: Why It’s So Hard to Get Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 13 Apr 2014
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