Why social workers suffer from depression and need help too

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The task of helping people cope with traumatic events in their lives in an environment free of stigma is one that mental health professionals shoulder selflessly.

Patients are required to be as transparent as possible as they narrate what troubles them in order to get adequate help and accurate diagnoses.

Though this work is voluntary, social workers may fall victim to vicarious trauma after hearing gory details of a patient’s traumatic events.

Vicarious trauma is the result of a professional’s interaction with the trauma of a client. It is easy to confuse this with burnout, another form of work-related stress.

However, while burnout is influenced by a variety of factors in the workplace, vicarious trauma stems from listening to trauma survivors narrating their pain and accumulates over a period. This has earned it the alternative name “compassion fatigue”.


The condition affects those in other professions that involve interacting with traumatic material as well. Lawyers in criminal justice cases, the police and journalists see and hear things from their clients and while in the field that can greatly alter their worldview.

The role that natural empathy plays, especially in the field of counselling psychology, is immense.

“Counsellors are trained to engage clients with empathic understanding while remaining objective and professional,” says Dr Joseph Omollo, a clinical psychologist.

“However, they are also human and often get affected by the suffering of their clients. If this happens they should seek immediate supervision and therapy.”

“Vicarious trauma may arise from a counsellor sympathising with the patient and thereby secondarily becoming symptomatic,” he adds.

For social workers involved in humanitarian work, offering aid to the severely traumatised and witnessing first-hand the atrocities meted out on them increases the risk of vicarious trauma.

“Working with victims of terrorism in Mogadishu had an impact on me,” says Nancy Nyambura, a psychologist with medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.

“After listening to (stories of) gunshots and bombings, it began affecting my sense of safety and security. I began having vivid dreams which were playing out some of the trauma that my clients had shared.”

With the right mechanisms in place for managing vicarious trauma, social workers are further equipped as caregivers in practising their vocation.

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