Vicarious Trauma and Peer Recovery Supporters

Peer supporters are people who have been successful in the addiction recovery process. They are trained to provide for people struggling with addiction, mental health, or any form of trauma, a crucial aspect for one’s recovery process. Peers offer an emotional connection that is necessary to prevent feelings of isolation from the person struggling. However, the supporter’s role can be emotionally taxing on its own, and it is not uncommon for a supporter to develop what is known as vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, is the gradual change or disruption of feelings/emotions, inner thoughts, beliefs and spirit as a result of working with people with traumatic experiences or stories. Secondary trauma is commonly noted among mental health professionals, social workers and those who work closely with traumatized people, including peer recovery supporters.

When a person is actively engaged in helping someone who has experienced trauma, the line between empathy and vicarious trauma is likely blurred, leading to feelings of helplessness, exhaustion and guilt, as well as deliberate avoidance of the individual being supported. For peer supporters in particular, this exposure could lead them to re-experience their own past trauma or experience relapse with alcohol or drug addiction.

Repeated exposure to secondary trauma can create a disconnect between the trauma survivor and the peer supporter if the relationship is not properly maintained. However, there are resources available to build and maintain resiliency in relationships with clients. Peers can consult their hiring agencies for ongoing support and have discussions that promote optimism. Friends and family can utilize online resources such as the Safe Coping Skills worksheet and the Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center, which offers various free resources from trauma-informed care experts regarding the impact of trauma on health and methods to improve patient outcomes and navigate one’s own trauma.

Peer recovery supporters experiencing vicarious trauma can also practice self-care, both through individual coping strategies, such as proper exercise and sleep, and organizational commitments, including scheduling self-care groups, consulting outside facilitators to manage group sessions, hosting stress-reducing and bonding activities and frequently assessing a staff member’s self-care needs.