Vicarious and secondary trauma in education in the wake of Everyone’s Invited

Media attention surrounding the issues raised by the spotlight shone on abuse and harassment of various forms suffered by pupils in educational settings in recent months has, and rightly so, been focused on the impact on the students themselves.  However what may be at risk of being overlooked is the potential impact on those members of staff who are involved at various stages in picking up the pieces.  In other words, to adapt a well-known maxim, Quis curabit ipsos curantes?

According to the most recently published HSE statistics for Work-related Stress, Anxiety or Depression in Great Britain, 2020, the education sector continues, as in previous years, to feature with significantly higher prevalence rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety than the average across all industries.  The average rate according to the HSE statistics is 1570 cases per 100,000 workers; for the education sector, the rate is almost 40% higher, at 2170 cases per 100,000 workers.

Every teacher’s role, in the secondary setting of schools and colleges, consists of the academic dimension with responsibility for teaching and learning on the one hand, and the pastoral dimension involving managing behaviour to promote an effective and safe learning environment on the other.  As part of the second limb of the role, teaching staff must be aware of safeguarding issues and comply with the school’s safeguarding policy, in line with the statutory guidance issued by the Department for Education under section 175 of the Education Act 2002 and related Regulations.  The current statutory guidance is to be found in Keeping Children Safe in Education, recently updated in January 2021 (KCSIE 2021).  Safeguarding training is mandatory for all school staff, who must be familiar with Part 1 of KCSIE 2021.  Part 2 relates specifically to safeguarding, and requires the appointment of what has since 2015 been known as a Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL), who has lead and overall responsibility for safeguarding.  That responsibility cannot be delegated, although most organisations will appoint one or more deputies in order to ensure continuity should the DSL be absent.

There has been a growing awareness over recent years of the impact on professionals who have to deal, whether on a one-off basis or on a day-to-day basis, with traumatic events.  Some organisations have adopted a model known as TRiM (Trauma Risk Management) which was initially developed in the Royal Marines before being adopted as standard across the UK Armed Forces.  Some organisations, including the BBC and the FCDO’s Diplomatic Service, along with the police and some disaster relief charities have also sought to adopt this model.  A recent case study at Northampton General Hospitals NHS Trust recently looked at the use of a peer support service modelled on TRiM methodology in terms of supporting staff through the COVID-19 pandemic, with positive recommendations, although the usual approach within the NHS is slightly different, based on the US practice of Schwartz Rounds, which provide healthcare professionals with opportunities to talk about emotional reaction to the situations of patients in their care.

TRiM methodology involves, not clinical intervention, but ongoing trauma-aware risk assessment through the training of managers to recognise appropriate signs and symptoms of an emerging mental ill health in colleagues encountering traumatic situations; this training is used to facilitate and encourage access to appropriate qualified professional assistance.

One of the difficulties in this area, particularly in the Education sector, is that most of the guidance documentation available to those responsible for staffing in educational settings is focused exclusively on the student.  This is certainly true of KCSIE 2021; even key occupational medicine texts, including those which consider teaching specifically, do not make reference specifically to vicarious or secondary trauma, although burn-out is dealt with.  There is reference in some of the US academic literature from the last decade relating to secondary traumatic stress in education, and schools specifically, although the bulk of the underlying work in this area has been carried out not in education but amongst mental health workers and those involving child social services.

The terms “vicarious trauma” and “secondary trauma” are both now increasingly widely used.  The term vicarious trauma was used by Pearlman & Saakvitne (1995) and relates to a change in perception or experience of the world as a result of what might be described as empathetic engagement with a traumatised individual and their reports of their experiences, with an impact on beliefs about the world and perceptions of meaning and hope.  This can produce various symptoms affecting mood ( including depression), disturbance of sleep and some somatic symptoms.  Those who have themselves in the past been victims of traumatic events are thought potentially to be more vulnerable; in this context, there have been estimates in the recent past that up to 1,000,000 children per year in the UK suffer at least some form of abuse and ONS statistics from 2013 suggested that almost half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England & Wales each year.  It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that at least some of those who are themselves in a position, within Education, to receive potentially distressing disclosures from students on a regular basis may themselves have a legacy of personal trauma.

The term “secondary trauma” can be used in a subtly different sense and can result in individuals exhibiting symptoms similar to PTSD in circumstances in which individuals have had no direct exposure to trauma themselves.  The effects of vicarious or secondary trauma frequently involve symptoms of compassion fatigue (likened in the literature to “drowning in empathy” – Figley (1995)) and burn-out.

A number of occupations are thought to be at risk of vicarious or secondary trauma including police officers, the judiciary, social workers and lawyers; in the field of law there are now publications available providing insight and guidance in relation to vicarious and secondary trauma.  That there is limited literature relating to the impact of vicarious or secondary trauma in relation to teachers specifically (although as noted above there is some US literature on this topic albeit without a strong Education sector research base); there is much in the literature, however, relating to burn-out.  Burn-out is not necessarily entirely coextensive with vicarious or secondary trauma, although it is frequently an aspect of these phenomena.  Whereas burn-out tends to be a condition of gradual onset, it can be a feature of secondary trauma situations that the condition can evolve quite suddenly.  Burn-out is, however, now about to gain more official and objective recognition as a psychiatric condition, as it will be included within the next edition of the ICD, or International Classification of Diseases (ICD 11), in 2022.

It seems at least probable that the media spotlight on the issues raised by “Everyone’s Invited”, with specific reference to the Education Sector, will encourage greater numbers of potentially distressing disclosures to education staff.  Whilst DSLs in schools will continue to carry overall responsibility in this respect, disclosures will not always be made directly to a DSL and are likely in many circumstances to be made to other members of staff “on the front line” with whom students have a trusted relationship – including for example those managing or working in, for example, inclusion or behaviour units.  At tertiary education level, there is likely to be a wider range of potential initial disclosure points, including professional counselling services, though nominated tutors, college advisers or welfare officers may well also be involved, and many further education establishments will have volunteer peer support networks who may be in a position to receive distressing disclosures.

Organisations working in the field of Education, therefore, may need to begin to give some thought to the specific risks which vicarious or secondary trauma may present to staff in the pastoral or safeguarding aspects of their roles.  Part of such a strategy may be to consider the availability of on-site counselling, albeit that this is not in itself a panacea.  In February 2016, the Department of Education published non-statutory guidance entitled “Counselling in Schools: a Blueprint for the Future: Departmental Advice for School Leaders and Counsellors”.  This document is mainly aimed at the issue of mental health services for students in school settings, the documents does also make limited reference to the promotion of staff health and well-being.  A number of schools have, whether as a result of this non-statutory guidance or otherwise, begun over the last few years to move to a model of having counsellors on school sites.  Universities and other higher education organisations are likely to provide student counselling services, and whilst in both secondary and tertiary settings any insourced or outsourced third party professional counsellors are likely to have their own support structures, thought should be given to the position of directly-employed or volunteer counsellors.

Quite apart from the obvious benefits of promoting staff health and well-being, the numbers of liability claims relating to mental health issues, principally stress, are on the rise; further, “Everyone’s Invited”-type abuse or harassment within the education setting is not the only source of potentially distressing disclosures, as examples of abusive behaviour towards children in the home is thought to have increased significantly during the pandemic.  It may be, therefore, that if pastoral and safeguarding involvement in distressing disclosures from students increases in the coming months, educational institutions which do not give positive thought now to supporting staff involved in dealing with such disclosures may be exposed to civil damages claims.  Awareness within the sector is also growing; issues of secondary trauma have featured in articles published on the Education Support and SecEd websites recently, and the issue was raised at this year’s NASUWT conference in April 2021, albeit in the context of supporting pupils and colleagues dealing with COVID-related bereavement.  Finally, from a regulatory perspective, the HSE has a strong focus in relation to stress at work currently, and is thought to be seeking opportunities to pursue its first regulatory enforcement case in this field.


Chris Fletcher, Partner at BLM chris.fletcher@blmlaw.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s