The recent events at Fort Hood, Texas — multiple killings on an army base at the hands of a soldier — have people asking many questions. How could this happen in a protected space, such as an army base? How could it happen at the hands of a soldier? And how could it happen at the hands of a soldier whose job it was to help others with their own psychological distress?
The experiences of war are traumatic for the soldiers and those living in war torn areas. The cumulative effects of combat stress can lead to such disorders as PTSD. But is there a similar cumulative effect of listening, repeatedly, to soldier’s most traumatic experiences? Researchers have found that listening to traumatic stories from clients can cause psychological distress for the clinician. This phenomenon has been termed “vicarious traumatization” and, over time, it can lead to “compassion fatigue” in the therapist.
One study has shown that personal characteristics of the therapist, such as the extent to which they “practice what they preach” in terms of working through their own stress, is directly related to burnout and compassion fatigue. But as a recent NY Times article points out, in addition to the stress of listening to soldiers’ harrowing tales of war, the military psychologists are also dealing with the prospect of their own deployment. Although there is a built in “checks and balances” system to monitor those providing care, the authors point out that for an officer at his rank, Maj. Hasan would have been expected to seek help on his own if he felt he needed it. However, this philosophy does not align with previous findings which show that therapists often feel expected to shoulder the burden of traumatic stories and that there is a sense of pride in maintaining client confidentiality and personal composure.
These findings, coupled with another study that shows the social function of “collective remembering” — in which the “social sharing” of emotions related to a traumatic event have long-term benefits in terms of post-traumatic growth and social integration — make salient the differences between sharing trauma at a collective vs. individual level. Collective sharing and processing of emotions can help a society and its citizens work through traumatic events. Therapists clearly have a role in sharing the experiences and facilitating positive coping processes, but their own experiences and stresses cannot be neglected in the process.
Does the war end when the shooting stops? The psychological toll of war. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, July 2006
Factors affecting burnout and compassion fatigue in psychotherapists treating torture survivors: Is the therapist’s attitude to working through trauma relevant? Journal of Traumatic Stress, March 2007
Compassion fatigue: When listening Hurts. APA Monitor, September 1995
Painful stories take a toll on military therapists. NY Times, 11/7/09
Social sharing of emotion, post-traumatic growth, and emotional climate: Follow-up of Spanish citizen’s response to the collective trauma of the March 11th terrorist attacks in Madrid
Posted in Emotion and Motivation, Health
Tagged compassion fatigue, Ft. Hood, listening, Maj. Nadal Malik Hasan, Military, PTSD, soldiers, therapist burnout, trauma, vicarious traumatization, war
Yesterday Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa L. King was made commandant of the drill sergeant school at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and is the first woman to fill such a position in any of the Army’s schools across the country. According to a recent article by James Dao of the NY Times women constitute a very small percentage of Army personnel in general (13%) and an even smaller percentage of the Army’s highest-ranking enlisted soldiers in active-duty (8%). The lack of female personnel and those in high-ranking positions has been attributed to “pregnancy, long hours and the prohibition against women serving in frontline combat positions” by the Army. Experimental research, particularly in the areas of gender and stereotyping, indicates that women are evaluated differently than men in military training which may also explain the lack of women in higher-ranking positions.
Boldry, Wood, and Kashy (2001) found that although there were no actual performance differences between male and female cadets men were perceived as having the motivation and leadership to succeed in the military while women were thought to have more feminine attributes that would impair performance. Other research has shown that the proportion of women in a given unit is related to performance evaluation such that when women represent a smaller/token portion of the unit their performance is rated lower than men, but when there was a higher proportion of women performance was rated higher than men (Pazy & Oron, 2001). It seems that perception, not performance, contributes to the maintenance of gender barriers in the military among other domains for both men and women. Hopefully, one day more of us can see the world and ourselves as Sergeant Major King does: “When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a female, I see a soldier.”
First Woman Ascends to Top Drill Sergeant Spot
Gender Stereotypes and the Evaluation of Men and Women in Military Training
Sex proportion and performance evaluation among high-ranking military officers