Therapists' Experience of Secondary Trauma: Influence of Trauma Type and Social Support

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Counseling Psychology & Community Services


Individuals who have been traumatized need to gain comfort from others, and they often seek this from mental health care providers. As providers are exposed to traumatic material, they are at risk for becoming victimized themselves. This phenomenon is explained as secondary trauma, and includes Figley’s model of compassion fatigue (CF), and McCann, Pearlman, and Saakvitne’s model of vicarious trauma (VT). The first purpose of this study was to explore factors related to the development of CF and VT in mental health professionals. While many factors have been implicated as moderators of CF and VT, two factors were chosen for this study. First, type of trauma presented by the client was explored. It was hypothesized that the development of CF and VT in therapists dealing with trauma due to human intent, trauma due to natural events, equal amount of trauma types, and no trauma, would be statistically different, and furthermore that therapists dealing with trauma due to human intent would have more symptoms of CF and VT than therapists dealing with trauma due to natural causes. Results indicated that trauma due to natural events was more likely to predict the development of CF and VT than any other trauma type, and that not all trauma types differed significantly. It was also hypothesized and confirmed by results that individuals who perceived higher levels of personal social support would experience fewer symptoms of CF and VT. The second purpose of this study was to examine the measures that assess CF and VT. Because the theoretical underpinnings of CF and VT are different while both measuring a form of secondary trauma, it was hypothesized that their respective measures would have a moderate positive correlation. This was confirmed by results. Finally, the validity of the claim that CF can be considered a subset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was examined by hypothesizing that the measure of CF would have strong positive correlations with two measures of PTSD. Only one measure of PTSD confirmed this hypothesis. The clinical, theoretical and research implications of these findings are discussed.

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