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Lifelines: Caregivers Often Carry Trauma Of Their Own

Mary McIntyre

Caregivers are one group of essential workers who have continued showing up for their jobs daily amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At the Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield, staff work with children with disabilities and children who've been neglected or abused.

This story is part of our series Lifelines: Addressing Trauma in the Age of COVID-19

Often workers have their own past trauma, or they can experience secondary trauma on the job.

Susan Ryan is the CEO and president of the Spaulding Youth Center. Before the coronavirus pandemic, NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley sat down with her to chat about what it's like to work with children who've experienced trauma, and how she helps her staff with secondary trauma.

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Rick Ganley: I imagine that working in this field, working with these children, getting to know them and what's happened to them is very traumatic in itself. I mean, it's very hard work for staff. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you go about kind of mitigating the effects of that on you and your staff.

Susan Ryan: Well, it's actually a true thing. You know, caregiver fatigue, vicarious trauma, all of these things are real for anybody who is working with these children. And self-care is something that we talk about with our staff and we provide seminars. Even our own clinicians will work with each other, or work with the teams here to provide them with tools and techniques to find their way past what can be very difficult to hear repeatedly and to work with these children repeatedly. Because these kids will ultimately confide in them.

Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR

You know, we provide a safe environment. It's a real safety. It's a physical safety. It's a felt safety, as in an emotional safety. And these children will divulge a lot with these staff members. And these staff members are placed in a position, I certainly myself have been placed in the position many times, where a child will say something. And your response is vital to how they're going to process and how much more they're going to say. And these children, like anyone who goes through a traumatic event, really do need to talk it out and talk about it in a way that feels positive if you can imagine that, in a way that tells themselves that it's not them who created this trauma, but it's them who that trauma,  or neglect or abuse was perpetrated on.

Rick Ganley: What do you say to a staff member that comes to you, and they've been dealing with a very difficult case, a difficult situation, and they're suffering from maybe burnout or stress? What would you offer them?

Susan Ryan: Well, I think, you know, our staff are very well trained as to how to work with our kids. You know, they're trained in trauma informed training, which helps them. So a lot of what we do, that's the work that we do with the children, the modalities that we use with them, also are really helpful for our staff to process these things.

Rick Ganley: Is it common for people who do this kind of work to have experienced trauma themselves?

Susan Ryan: I do think it is. We have certainly many people who have experienced all types of situations in their life and may even today be experiencing them. And whether it's real trauma or people who have grown up through the foster system or adoption, late adoption might be something like that. Or just their own life experiences that have been traumatic for them, and they've recognized that with the right supports, with loving people surrounding you, with somebody who responds to you in a caring way and says that you matter, that that one person can make a huge difference in your life. And I do know that people here, and I'm sure in other programs will say, it's when that child said this, that I knew that I was at the right place at the right time and that this was the work for me. And we've got a lot of people who've been here a long time.

So, you know, even though they're working with these kids who can be very challenging in every possible way. And I say this to every new person who comes, you will be challenged intellectually, emotionally and sometimes physically by these kids. But you have the opportunity to make a difference in their life. And you might be the one that they will look back on 20 years from now, maybe even just 10 or 30, and they'll say that person made a difference. And I'm so grateful that I had them in my life because they told me I mattered.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things at the Spaulding Youth Center. Day students are learning remotely, and children who live on campus are quarantined in their cottages. No visitors are allowed and employees are required to wear masks at all times.

I wanted to check in again with Susan Ryan to see how the kids and her staff at coping. - Rick Ganley

Susan Ryan: You know, we've been just really busy responding, and changing protocols and making sure everyone is safe. And, you know, we started really in early March. So it's been about two months now of really adapting to so many changes, and listening to all the information that's out there and trying to, again, keep our staff and our kids and our families as safe as possible.

Rick Ganley: It's got to be a hard time for staff, I imagine. They're essential workers coming in every day while also balancing taking care of their own families, including their own children who are, you know, learning remotely in most cases, I would imagine. How is the center supporting the staff right now?

Susan Ryan: So we, I think, have done the best job we can to be encouraging in a host of ways. We had put in an essential worker program before we actually were able to apply for some of the loans, and other things and the stipends that the governor has come out with. We had put that in and kind of crossed our fingers and hoped we'd be able to somehow fund it. We did put out an appeal and people have been fantastic in responding. So, you know, even our staff seeing the support from their community and people who have never donated to us before, really is helpful to them. We've done a parade of thanks. We've got huge banners hanging on buildings thanking them. We do a lot of encouraging but informational email communication. We have signs all over campus, yard signs that are little signs of encouragement, because we really want them to know that we're in this with them.

Rick Ganley: Well, I know you have a very dedicated staff, but even in the best of times, even though all the resources that you may have, this is a stressful job. You know, money and appreciation obviously are great. But time and burnout has got to be a factor here.

Susan Ryan: Well, you know, we are always concerned about that. So we are continuing to step up in fact with our employee assistance program offerings, doing lots of encouraging messaging around taking advantage of virtual meditation, or yoga or other things that will help bring people a little bit of time to themselves. And it's not easy. You know, I think coming to work every day for some has actually been very normalizing. They're wearing a mask and they're taking a lot of other precautions, getting temperatures taken and all of these things. But that aside, they are, I think, glad to be able to have some sense of normalcy.

And, you know, our kids can be very challenging, but they also bring a lot of joy, and they really are funny, and creative and clever, and they really do give our staff a lot of joy. So they see that the children continue to benefit and need them and their time and their energy. And I think that that fulfills them as well. These are giving people, obviously, and they're very resilient, too. And I think when they see the resilience in the children, I think that lifts their spirits as well.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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