28 January, 2011

Self-Care Through Debriefing

In the field of Victim Services, we see a lot of suffering. We work with victims who face challenges healing and recovering following crime victimization. Our job is to provide support to these victims that can help ease the stress of participation in the criminal justice process. Our compassion and concern for others are what bring many of us to the field and are tremendous assets to our work—but may also put us at risk for burnout and vicarious trauma if we do not take care of ourselves.

There are many things that we can do to lessen the impact of victims’ trauma on own well-being. One of the most important things we can do to ensure that we remain compassionate and victim-focused is to participate in regular debriefing. Debriefing involves talking with a colleague or supervisor shortly after an experience that you found difficult to handle, overwhelming, or traumatic. Examples of such experiences differ depending on our life experiences and individual differences, but may include things such as reading a graphic police report or witness statement, talking with a victim who is deeply upset by the crime or the criminal justice process, or helping a victim cope with a “not guilty” verdict. Debriefing may also be helpful after working with a victim with whom we identify or to whom we have a particularly strong reaction (either positive or negative) to help ensure that we are keeping our boundaries clear.

Debriefing may involve simply processing: talking about what happened and reflecting on our own reactions. Debriefing may also involve problem-solving, in which we focus on what went well, what we wish had gone differently, and what alternative approaches may be useful in the future. Debriefing frequently (we suggest at least weekly) can help improve our own well-being, increase our sense of collaboration and connection, and help prevent symptoms of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue including disrupted sleep, poor health, and excessive anger or frustration both inside and outside of work.

Sometimes debriefing with people who understand our work is the most helpful approach. Debriefing should not be an afterthought or considered an impediment to getting work done, but instead should be viewed as a critical part of our work that keeps us healthy and effective. Our goal is to maintain our compassion and respect for victims while caring for our own mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. So the next time you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed – or, better yet, before that happens - grab a colleague, get a cup of coffee, and debrief.

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