Vicarious trauma (VT), the phenomenon of changes in cognition and worldview that result from empathic response and repeated exposure to narratives of trauma, is a risk for helping professionals.
This descriptive, correlational study sought to examine levels of VT among sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) as compared with other women’s health nurses. It also explored whether levels of VT are different for nurses who have experienced primary trauma alone, VT alone, or both personal trauma and VT. VT was assessed through an anonymous online survey using the nurses’ total scores on the Trauma and Attachment Belief Scale.
Trauma and Attachment Belief Scale scores were significantly higher for SANEs (M = 178.5, SD = 42.6) than for women’s health nurses (M = 168.1, SD = 41.4; p = 0.025), indicating higher levels of trauma-related cognitive disruption in the SANE group. Scores were also significantly higher for both groups with personal trauma histories at the p < 0.05 level compared with the women’s health nurses with no personal history.
SANEs who had no personal history of trauma did not differ significantly from either group of nurses who did, suggesting that VT from working as an SANE is associated with levels of cognitive disruption similar to oneself having experienced trauma.
Nurses should be aware of this phenomenon and its sequelae when choosing to pursue the specialty of sexual assault nursing. Hospitals and other organizations employing SANEs should also be aware of VT and provide a support system with resources in place to mitigate these effects.
Future research should further explore effects of primary trauma versus VT, clinical manifestations and significance of varying levels of VT, and interventions and strategies for dealing with VT.
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1Author Affiliations: 1St. Vincent Carmel Women's Center, Case Western Reserve University; and 2Case Western Reserve University.
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