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Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky

December 22, 2012

First things first: Trauma Stewardship is part of the canon on secondary trauma. It is about how people who are caregivers and activists manage their work, in healthy and unhealthy ways, and how they can move towards dealing with the trauma of those they serve in ways that do not deplete their energy and destroy their lives – or choose to get out. It may be because she’s from the area, but people from Washington State tend to get a little breathless when you mention Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.  It seems that someone is either pressing a concept from the book onto you, or is praising the woman behind it, who often does trainings for caregivers and social workers.

The book is totally up to the hype. The phrase ‘secondary trauma’ may conjure up an image of a privileged middle-class person who turns a blind eye to the troubles of those they serve, while meanwhile thinking their problems – there are 2 things on when I am gone and I can’t record them on my DVR! – are bigger than the problems of the homeless, poor, severely mentally ill, abused, or in crisis folks that they serve. Thankfully, this is not the case.

Lipsky first talks about what burnout means; it does not mean that a service provider is a bad person, or lacks compassion – it means they are not able to even see the good anymore.  She talks about institutional reasons why this happens, and how it leads to poor service. She carefully and compassionately lays out the features of burnout. This section is where service providers themselves will either nod knowingly, or get defensive, because we have experienced most of the aspects of burnout to some degree.

Lastly, Lipsky gives a path to finding a self-sustaining way to remain in service. Like most actual good advice, it is not clearcut or easy, and requires a lot of introspection and soul-searching. Lipsky does not give a simple answer, but rather asks questions to help you find an answer. She also acknowledges that sometimes it is better to get out, and does not see this as a weakness, or as giving up – as many social service providers do.

Lipsky also provides case studies throughout the book – stories of service providers who either had healthy ways of doing their jobs or had to learn them, are still in their jobs, or left for other ones. These stories help to make it an endlessly fascinating and useful book.

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