Your psychologist or counsellor might develop stress disorder listening to you
Huzaifa Ahmad was neither a friend nor a relative of the 30-year-old victim of domestic abuse from west Delhi. Yet, for days afterwards at work, the 32-year-old would imagine the brutalised face of the victim and hear her screams. At night she would stay awake unable to sleep, her mind drunk with images of violence which she had never witnessed.
Ahmad is a clinical psychologist with Umeed Ki Kiran, a unit of the international humanitarian NGO Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) in Jahangirpuri. Providing relief to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse is her job.
Many a time she would wait till her clients leave so that she can run to the bathroom and cry her heart out. But what she failed to notice, as the condition of her clients improved with each passing session, was how her own was deteriorating.
The stories she listened to was affecting her health and changing her attitudes. She became jittery, depressed and started disliking men. Then in 2012, unable to take it anymore she quit her first job. Exposed to the distress of others, day in and day out, the frontline foot soldiers of trauma care- counsellors and social workers-can often develop stress disorders that mimic their clients.
WHAT IS SECONDARY TRAUMA?
"Secondary trauma is an occupational hazard. You are all the time absorbing other people's anguish and pain without even knowing it," said Anuja Gupta, founder and executive director, Rahi Foundation, a CR Park-based NGO working with women survivors of child sexual abuse and incest.
Trauma after tragedy is nothing new. Emperor Ashoka who fought one of the bloodiest battles in Indian history, the Kalinga War, was so traumatised by the bloodshed that he devoted the rest of his life to non-violence. However, the understanding that trauma can be contagious is much newer.
Psychoanalysts since Sigmund Freud have noted how listening to tragic stories of other people can lead to countertransferance, a phenomenon that leads to a therapists emotional entanglement with a client. Though India specific studies on secondary trauma are hard to come by, Gupta who had been practising as a counsellor for over two decades says that a therapist too can show the same symptoms experienced by an abuse survivor such as helplessness, anger, nausea, tiredness, body ache, anxiety, sleeplessness and headache.
'YOU FEEL LIKE TAKING A BATH IMMEDIATELY'
"We are listening to stories that are extremely filthy and sexual," said Gupta whose team of counsellors collaborated with actor Amir Khan for an episode on child sexual abuse and incest for his television show Satyamev Jayate.
According to her most of the abuses takes place within the confines of a family. "Indian families are not the best place for women and children. We have listened to cases of abuse from victims as young as two-years-old," she said. In a majority of the cases fathers are the main culprits. They abuse their daughters over prolonged periods of time. The survivors, unable to speak out or move out, get trapped in an eco-system of abuse until they are financially independent. "At times it (what you hear) gets overwhelming. You feel like going and taking a bath," said Gupta.
For trauma care workers, one way to buffer their mind is through peer-to-peer sharing.
Amrit Kaur, the 64-year-old grizzly haired senior counsellor at the Special Police Unit for Women and Children in Malaviya Nagar began to experience heaviness in her head after constantly listening to tales of domestic violence. Her work station, which consists of a mica-topped table, two chairs and a sofa, is one among the four enclosed cubicles for counselling which the centre has. Every now and then a conversation flares up from within one of the cubicles, as couples angrily assert their arguments even as their kids, oblivious to the drama, blissfully wander or stroll here and there. "Most of the couples who come here are on an emotional high. So we keep them apart during counselling," said Kaur pointing to the two chairs on either side of the table.
She recalled a young couple who came to meet her from South Delhi a few years ago. The source of dispute was the wife's insistence to move out of her in-laws house, which the husband refused saying that he is the only son. Then one day the husband came along with his wife saying that he was ready to move out. Unlike other couples they didn't have any conflict between them. They sat together on the sofa, chatted with each other happily and even shared biscuits. Then a week-later the girl came alone with her father. She was looking gaunt and her hair wild. Her father told me that the husband committed suicide and she had gone into depression. I talked to her at length and tried to lift her mood. Two days later, the father called again and said the girl too has committed suicide.
PRESSED BUT PROUD
Kaur went silent. "I have faced extreme tragedies in my personal life, so I don't get affected easily. But this was overwhelming," she said. Both Kaur and her colleagues started experiencing headaches after sitting through back to back sessions, often up to six in a day. "That's when we decided we have to compartmentalise our work from personal lives. Now we share jokes during lunch time to lighten the mood. We also greet our colleagues and smile at each other more." To avoid burnout, the team at Rahi Foundation and Medecins Sans Frontieres go through regular decompression exercises that include yoga, meditation, drawing, breathing exercises and talk therapy under the supervision of experts.
Yet, despite the concomitant hazards of their job, none of the trauma care workers regret their career choice. "The work is so rewarding. We can see right in front of our eyes how the victims are changing, taking steps and moving forward," said Gupta. Even someone like Ahmad of Medicines Sans Frontieres who quit her job after a breakdown came back to counseling within a month. "I don't want my labour to make some corporate house rich," she said, explaining why she didn't look for other jobs. I want to use it to make a positive difference in other people's lives." But trusting men continues to be a challenge for her. "It's very tough to date men after doing this job. So these days, while I am out in public I take make efforts to see their (men's) positive traits," said Ahmad.