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Mental health therapists who work with victims of trauma are often exposed to vivid descriptions of traumatic events and strong emotional expressions from their clients. Research within the last fifteen years has started to explore the impact of this indirect form of trauma exposure on therapists who treat trauma clients.
The purpose of this study was to explore the prevalence of interpersonal and sexual disruptions as symptoms of secondary traumatic stress/vicarious trauma among practicing mental health therapists, to understand how various therapist characteristics predict interpersonal and sexual disruptions, and to explore the role that gender and prior trauma history play in the development of secondary traumatic stress/vicarious traumatization. A total of 330 licensed mental health therapists participated in the study. Correlation analysis and multiple regressions were used to test the study hypotheses.
A total of 29.3% of the sample was found to have moderate to severe levels of secondary traumatic stress as measured by the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (Bride, Robinson, Yegidis, & Figley, 2003). No association was found between secondary traumatic stress symptoms and sexual interest or sexual relationship satisfaction. Significant associations were found between secondary traumatic stress symptoms and interpersonal disruptions. Specifically, mental health therapists experiencing more severe intrusion symptoms were also experiencing increased use of avoidance and critical communication patterns. Mental health therapists experiencing more severe avoidance and arousal symptoms were also experiencing less relationship satisfaction, less social intimacy, decreased use of constructive communication patterns, and increased use of avoidance and critical communication patterns.
The variables of female gender, fewer years of counseling experience, receiving personal therapy, and more exposure to trauma clients were not predictive of interpersonal disruptions. Post hoc analysis, however, confirmed these same variables as predictive of intrusion and avoidance symptoms. Fewer years of counseling experience was a statistically significant unique predictor for intrusion and avoidance symptoms, while gender was a statistically significant unique predictor for intrusion symptoms. The variables of female gender, assaultive trauma history and younger age of first trauma were not predictive of secondary traumatic stress symptoms or interpersonal disruptions. Implications, limitations, and directions for future research are discussed.