secondary trauma

What is Secondary Traumatization?

Published on December 3, 2019 by First Responder Wellness

In the mental health world, the term “trauma” is used to describe any experience that creates emotional or mental distress to the extent that it becomes difficult to function in some or all facets of life.  We are currently in the midst of a profound cultural shift that is beginning to acknowledge the many-layered effects of emotional trauma, and how untreated trauma can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental health issues.  What is less discussed, however, is the phenomenon of secondary trauma. First studied in the 1980s, secondary trauma refers to the traumatization experienced by individuals who find themselves constantly in contact with trauma survivors.  This can include police officers, mental health workers, firefighters, members of search and rescue teams, and all first responders. Secondary traumatization often goes undiagnosed, and can result in several serious symptoms that ultimately affect an individual’s quality of life.  Understanding secondary trauma and seeking treatment is crucial for those who find themselves in careers with a high risk of developing this condition.


The lines between primary and secondary trauma are often blurred, especially for first responders.  While a police officer arriving to the scene of a deadly car crash can’t say he was traumatized in the same way as those involved in the crash, for example, he can easily become traumatized by what he sees upon arrival, as well as through interaction with victims and their families following the accident.  One study found that more than 80% of paramedics surveyed reported experiencing at least one “extraordinarily disturbing incident” in the past six months. This high rate of exposure to gruesome and tragic images and events can result in constant stress and difficulty finding ways to cope.  

Additionally, secondary traumatization can happen when an individual is required to listen to details of a traumatic event to the extent that they begin to experience many of the emotions and mental distress associated with the trauma.  Individuals in careers that require them to speak with trauma victims are conditioned to display compassion while also maintaining composure and professionalism. These jobs innately require some degree of emotional suppression, and therefore can lead to secondary traumatization if intense feelings and reactions are not otherwise processed in a healthy manner.


People who experience secondary trauma may go on to suffer from many of the same symptoms as trauma victims themselves.  While trauma victims may receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, those who develop secondary trauma are said to have secondary traumatic stress disorder.  Symptoms of this condition may include, but are not limited to, mental exhaustion, physical fatigue, problems maintaining healthy relationships, sleep issues, and a heightened risk of addiction.

It is important to understand that mental health disorders and addiction often occur in various combinations and may evolve into additional conditions over time.  When an individual works in an environment that puts them at a high risk of developing one mental health issue, such as depression, they are likely to be at risk of multiple other mental health issues as well, including addiction.  Secondary traumatization is a diagnosis that often goes hand-in-hand with many other co-occurring disorders such as substance use disorder and anxiety. Symptoms may vary from person to person, therefore understanding what is causing poor mental health can be difficult without an expert diagnosis. 


Much of the current discussion surrounding secondary traumatization focuses on prevention.  A major component of preventing many mental health issues and substance use disorders is creating space for human connection, and the same is true for first responders, if not more so.  First responders who report having a strong basis of support in their workplace and someone to turn to when they are struggling to cope with the stress of the job have been found to have far lower rates of secondary trauma and other job-related mental health issues. 

However, even with access to mental health care and healthy human connection, first responders are still at an increased risk of experiencing secondary trauma.  They may also be more unlikely to discuss their symptoms or recognize themselves as traumatized out of fear of being seen as unfit for the job. It is critical for people who believe they may be showing symptoms of secondary trauma to seek professional treatment.  Additionally, those who may have developed a drug or alcohol dependency while attempting to cope with secondary traumatization and mental health issues should seek treatment from an addiction recovery program equipped to provide a dual diagnosis for co-occurring disorders.  

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.  We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult. Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships.  By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.