Prevent Secondary Trauma While You Support Students and Staff

June 2, 2023

Across the United States, colleges and universities are reeling from the news of campus shootings. These acts of mass violence have grown far too prevalent in our educational institutions. At Michigan State University, a gunman killed three students and injured five in February 2023. The collective grief and fear for safety continue to reverberate across campuses in the United States and beyond. 

The aftermath of these senseless acts of violence takes a particular toll on higher education professionals. Even if they are not directly connected to the shootings, higher ed professionals are at risk of experiencing secondary or vicarious trauma as they support students and staff to process their emotions and empathize with colleagues at campuses that have experienced violence. 

If you’re like many of my clients, you may ask yourself, how can I show up for my students and other team members in authentic, effective, non-performative ways while also caring for my own well-being?

In my 20+ years of experience in child psychology and trauma, I’ve witnessed time and again how higher ed professionals have sacrificed and put the needs of students and staff before their own. But I’d like to offer that you can more effectively support students and your staff and not burn out in the process if you prioritize your own emotional needs.


Here are some of my most valuable tips for how to uncover what you need:

1. Discover multiple ways to take care of yourself.

Practice self-awareness and determine what it is that you need. Pay attention to your own feelings, motives, desires, hopes, fears, and self-talk. They can serve as guides for how you can best relax and restore. And don’t feel as if you have to hone in on one strategy to care for yourself. There is value in understanding and finding multiple ways to obtain what you need. 


2. Prioritize your well-being first before focusing on students and staff. 

Well-being is defined as “a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life.” It is reflected in multiple aspects of our lives—not just physically and mentally, but socially, professionally, emotionally, and spiritually as well.

Initially, it may feel self-centered to focus on our own needs first. But we can’t show up for others effectively if we are depleted. Whenever I find myself in such a situation, I remind myself of flight attendants’ pre-flight instructions — ”You have to secure your own face mask first before you can help others with theirs.”


3. Assess how you’re really doing 

Be honest with yourself: there is no shame in admitting that you’re not okay and finding safe spaces to ask for the help you need. In fact, you may inspire others to do the same. 


If any of this is resonating, sign up for my newsletter and receive my free digital guide—How to Cultivate Resilience in Yourself and Your Staff. 

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