It’s time to acknowledge secondhand trauma

It’s time to acknowledge secondhand trauma

There are invisible victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence that get little care or notice: the families and friends of survivors.

After my rape in 2009, my oldest brother was the first person I came forward to in my family. Then it was my parents, then my sister, and eventually my other two brothers as well. My family has not received therapy. I assume they’ve received spiritual counseling here and there individually, given the nature of our Catholicism, but I see the effects of secondhand trauma on them. The trauma that I suffered and the re-victimization I experienced with the school, everything had an effect on my family. My brother is still plagued with guilt. My mom asked me last week if there was something she could have done to protect me better. Years later, these things weigh on their minds.

What is secondhand trauma?

secondhand traumaAlso called secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue, this is what happens when people in contact with survivors of trauma experience their own trauma through the knowledge of the event or through regular contact and witness of the survivor’s trauma. More simply put, when someone is assaulted or when a survivor is re-victimized, those events have a ripple effect on that person’s closest circle.

What does it look like?

Secondhand trauma can look very similar to other stress disorders like PTSD and rape trauma syndrome.

  • Agitation or irritability
  • Confusion
  • Intense fear
  • Hypervigilance
  • Angry outbursts
  • Sadness or depression
  • Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
  • Nightmares or sleeplessness
  • Constant worry
  • Unable to focus or concentrate
  • Avoidance of public places
  • Chronic illness
  • Socially withdrawn or dissociated
  • Insensitivity to depictions of trauma

Why is it important to acknowledge secondhand trauma?

Secondary victims are most typically the survivor’s immediate support network (though studies have shown that hotline operators among other personnel can experience secondhand trauma as well). That support network can be parents, siblings, significant others, or friends. If their trauma is addressed and treated, then they will become better equipped to help the survivor, which in turn helps the survivor’s recovery and seeing that their needs are met throughout their healing process.

Conversely, the secondary victims can also hinder a survivor’s recovery. Survivors go through their stages of guilt and shame and denial, but by the time they’re coming forward to a family member or friend, they have accepted that what happened to them was sexual violence. Family members who do not confront and treat their own trauma may harm the survivor’s recovery by denying what happened to them or invalidating their pain and suffering.

Self-care and the circles of support

A dedicated support network, whether immediate family or close friends, practices an extreme kind of emotional labor in supporting survivors. If you or someone you know is supporting a survivor of sexual violence, make sure that self-care is part of the plan, too.

Self-care can be binge-watching the latest season of Jessica Jones or the Great British Baking Show; it can be a slow walk on a sunny day or baking cookies and talking with a friend. It can be a relaxing bath with a good book or even just a nap to restore your energy. With proper self-care, a support network can continue to be effective and healing in a survivor’s life.

circles of support

Another important key to remember is the circles of support. Place the survivor in the middle of the circle; around them, is a circle of loved ones; around them is a circle of their loved ones and so on. When looking for support, lean outwards on people, not in. The survivor does not need the additional burden of comforting the people in their lives who have been traumatized.


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