Self-care for Evaluators working on Vicarious Trauma related projects by Sonia Chen

Hello, my name is Sonia Chen (written in Maori language)

Hi everyone, my name is Sonia Chen. I’m a Senior Research Advisor at the Ministry of Health New Zealand. I want to share a recent experience that has a profound impact on me unexpectedly. 

I was about to design an evaluation for a worker-led pilot in mental health services at three hospitals. The funder invited me to their first half-day online planning workshop which was attended by social workers, nurses, and psychologists working at the frontline of mental health services. Little did I know, the workshop included three presentations on Vicarious Trauma (VT) – what it was, its impact on mental health professionals, and how they responded to it. As I listened and watched the presenters I would feel their emotion. 

After the workshop I found myself sitting at my desk unable to move on to my next task. I could not focus and I felt heavy and a great sense of sadness. It took me a while to realise that perhaps I was momentarily experiencing “second-hand” vicarious trauma. Initially, I brushed the idea off thinking it was ridiculous and I was being dramatic. But the feeling persisted. I felt a strong need to talk to someone but as I was working from home there was no one around, and booking a counselling session for some time later was not going to cut it. Fortunately, I managed to connect to a colleague who had some experience on the topic. After some chatting, I felt better. I realised afterwards how precious this experience was at the beginning of the evaluation.

Hot Tips:

Some useful questions to consider when working on VT or other mental health related evaluations:

  • Does the pilot produce any harm to its participants who will be sharing their experience in VT?
  • How does the pilot protect the wellbeing of the participants?
  • How can the evaluation avoid causing harm to the participants while achieving its objective?
  • How do I care for my wellbeing while trying to understand my evaluand?
  • What’s the impact of the pilot on all involved after it ends?
  • How can we tell the impact of the topic on the success of the pilot?

Cool Tricks:

  • Find out early what kind of experiences might be shared with you
  • Check your own reaction and perspective, e.g. are you likely to be triggered by the topic?
  • Establish your self-care strategy and resources, e.g. exercise, professional support, setting boundaries.
  • Identify cool friends who can lend you an ear and support you when you need it.

Rad Resource:

Vicarious Trauma 

Trauma-Informed Evaluation: Tip Sheet for Collecting Information

Situating Yourself in Trauma-informed Evaluation by Lisa Raphael

Principles of Trauma-informed Evaluation by Martha Brown

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11 thoughts on “Self-care for Evaluators working on Vicarious Trauma related projects by Sonia Chen”

  1. Good afternoon Sonia,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on the impact of vicarious trauma in evaluation. I related with your comments on the importance of self-care for evaluators as this is an area that I have identified as a potential drawback for the field of evaluation. I am seeking to learn more on how evaluators can cope effectively.
    I really appreciated your cool trick about the significance of finding out early the experiences stakeholders involved in the services/programs being evaluated. This is the only way we can be fully prepared and plan for the evaluation. It will allow evaluators to avoid causing harm to the stakeholders and themselves but still meet the evaluation criteria. Even though it was difficult for you to listen to the impact of the front line workers, it is truly important to feel the emotions and be able to respond appropriately.
    As well it helped build rapport with your stakeholders and gain an appreciation of their experiences. Understanding what the front line workers in the trenches have experienced as the evaluator will allow a continuous information dialogue between evaluators and program stakeholders and potentially reduce triggers.
    Evaluators need to have healthy self-care practices that will allow them to have balance with this difficult work. I really valued your recommendation of having support systems in place in order for the evaluator to check in when they need to de-brief. It is crucial to have a buddy or ally that you can share your feelings before they cause harm. It is equally important to recognize that just like self-care is unique, so is the everyone’s experiences with trauma and how vicarious trauma can impact them.
    Thank you for shining a light and providing exceptional resources that will guide me in my future evaluations and reminds me to be mindful of what might get in the way of the evaluation, adjust the evaluation format as well to be actively engaged in self-care practices.
    Kind regards,
    Lori Slatter

  2. Hi Sonia,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. I am a Master’s Student at Queen’s University, and I am currently taking my first course on Program Evaluation. I really appreciated the social science lens that you brought to this post, something that I have not seen a lot of throughout my experience learning about Program Evaluation Design. Although I have never specifically heard of the term ‘Vicarious Trauma’, I have taken a few workshops on trauma-informed practice. What I have learned from these workshops, which have a focus on working with children in schools, is that the more trauma-informed we are, the easier it will be to connect with someone who has experienced trauma. In your post, you discuss the importance of being trauma-informed as an evaluator, when completing mental health program evaluation. However, I agree with you that it is very important to stay aware of your own mental state throughout the evaluation. I also think that putting on a focus on your own mental health allows you to stay less intertwined with stakeholders, and therefore less biased.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Jen Mustvedt
    PME 802

  3. Helen Spanidis

    Hi Sonia,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and for sharing your experiences of working in a mental health program evaluation.
    I am an elementary school teacher and over the years of teaching, I have also come across many stressful situations that had an impact on my own well-being. Being in the field of education I can appreciate your suggestions on having a self-care plan to help you enhance your health, manage your stress to maintain professionalism, and in my case, work with young students, parents, and administrators.
    I found your “Cool Tips” very helpful and they make sense. I especially appreciate your suggestion on “Identifying cool friends who can lend you an ear and support you when you need it.” This will allow you to safely experience your full range of emotions which is an important component of emotional self-care. Self-care can be very personal and everyone’s approach might be different however, having a “toolkit” on a variety of strategies that you can use to help you look after your holistic wellbeing so that you can meet your professional and personal commitments will be very useful. Once the self-care plan is created it is also important to think about “what might get in the way?” and “what can we do to remove or adjust any of the barriers?” Having those next steps are important to minimize the impact.
    Thanks again for sharing and reminding us of the importance of having and taking time in creating a self-care plan for our well-being.

    1. Hi Helen, thank you so much for taking the time to comment and to share your experience on the subject. I’m curious about how you came across this post as you described yourself as a teacher (I thought only evaluators read these posts!). Like the comments from the others below, I think you have added value to my original and somewhat primitive post for others to come to learn from. You asked very interesting questions: “Once the self-care plan is created it is also important to think about “what might get in the way?” and “what can we do to remove or adjust any of the barriers?” Maybe you can write a post on these? Sincerely, Sonia.

      1. Helen Spanidis

        Hi Sonia and thank you for your response.
        I am completing my Professional Master’s of Education at Queens University and one of the assignments is to connect with a professional community at that site. The course that I am taking is on Program Evaluation and inquiry which has deepened my understanding of the evaluation of the social programs, particularly those we deal with as educators. Throughout this course, I have been challenged by the complexity of evaluation, most specifically in terms of use and usability. There are many factors to consider when evaluating a program and I am perplexed by how an evaluator is able to make those calls. I feel that I have greatly increased my knowledge of program evaluation and inquiry that I can now apply to my professional work as an educator and extend to my colleagues.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments on your experience. You remind me of the ongoing evaluation, broader social science, and even physics issue of striking a balance between, and accounting for the relative influence of, participation and observation. As evaluators, we continually have to be aware of our influence on others, their influence on us, and whether a different balance would lead to optimal evaluation outcomes.

    1. Thanks Gwenn and I totally agree with what you said. It doesn’t make sense to say the evaluator or the evaluation will be really “independent” to me anymore. Look forward to more exchange!

  5. Hi Sonia, thanks for sharing this experience of working in mental health program evaluation. I too have experienced vicarious trauma as an evaluator of a mental health program. It was aimed at people with severe mental illness who had been hospitalized for long periods of time. As I conducted interviews with patients and staff I heard many very sad stories which had a profound effect on me. I didn’t realize the impact it was having until I became quite depressed and anxious and shared the experiences with a psychologist. It’s good that you were able to recognize straight away what was going on and find a nice colleague to support you. All the best with your important work!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with me, Kate, and I hope all is well now! Do you think what you experienced (before you realised what was going on) have any impact on the evaluation? Maybe you should write a blog about your experience too 🙂

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