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Annual Conference

SF14 Session 5: Rape crisis counseling: trauma, contagion and supervision

By February 20, 2014 No Comments

Steve Segal spoke in depth about his recent research study of rape crisis counselling services in Israel. Using a study of volunteer-run services in Israel providing telephone and face-to-face counselling, Dr. Segal examined the effect of ‘trauma contagion’ in a workplace setting.

The Israeli rape crisis centres in the study utilise a woman-to-woman approach – based on the principle that “women can help each other only because of being women themselves.” Out of a training application pool of 40 women, only 10 women will complete the training and interview processes identify suitable volunteers. Volunteers at these centres fulfil a variety of roles, including answering the emergency hotline, counselling the survivors, and accompanying them though the medical, justice and legal systems.

However, the degree of exposure to the traumatic events recounted by rape survivors raises the concern that these volunteers also experience a degree of secondary trauma. Anyone helping a rape survivor can become emotionally overwhelmed and begin to experience, to a lesser degree, the same terror, rage, helplessness and despair at the survivor. Aware of these risks, the centres have instituted supervision in effort to mitigate the effects of this exposure to trauma. Such group supervision may be lead by a professional therapist, or a staff member qualified in group facilitation. The nature of this supervision varies, but volunteers are encouraged to share their feelings and experiences. Dr Segal hypothesised an epidemiological model of this trauma contagion – that such a work situation may become toxic, and the transmission of stories and experiences can become a source of trauma to the staff.

Dr Segal’s study addressed three hypotheses: firstly, that increased exposure would lead to increased effects of trauma; secondly, that increased trauma would lead the organisations to provide increased supervision, and, thirdly, that this supervision would help mitigate and lessen the effect of the trauma among the staff. Factors examined include a history of abuse, hours of work exposure to victim reports, degree of exposure to victim reports, loss of sexual intimacy, secondary trauma consistent with the symptoms of PTSD, vicarious traumatisation, anger management, and post-traumatic growth resulting from exposure to their clients’ crises.

Dr Segal’s research found that:

  • Duration of job exposure to victims trauma significantly degraded the sexual intimacy in counsellors’ own personal lives
  • Counsellors who had poorer anger management and/or abuse histories of their own also difficulties with sexual intimacy

Failed hypotheses:

  • Increased supervision was not associated with higher levels of sexual intimacy or lower levels of secondary trauma
  • Supervision was not associated with increased post-traumatic growth in this study

Concerning alternative hypothesis

  • Supervision was associated with increased secondary trauma and lower satisfaction with sexual intimacy
  • Could mean that supervision is just another vector increasing exposure

Segal concludes that we need to be careful about the type of supervision we are providing, being careful to avoid providing supervision that retraumatises workers. 

Related links

Dr Steven Segal at MACK Center