4 Tips for Trauma-Informed Self-Care: Caring for yourself while caring for others

August 16, 2023

CMHA Toronto practices trauma-informed care. This means educating all staff, volunteers, and board members about the ubiquity and impact of trauma so that everyone, at every level, can be sensitive to and respond appropriately to the presence of trauma.  

As Mark Dwyer, Housing First’s clinical lead explains, frontline work rarely if ever relies on a formal diagnosis or other medical information, but instead is deeply client-centric: “When clients come to us, we want to listen to their stories. We base a lot of our work on exactly what the person is saying to us. We don't assume anything except for trauma. We assume trauma is there; for everything else, we wait and listen.” 

Listening to those stories, however, can take a toll on the case workers, managers, crisis counsellors, and anyone else engaging directly with clients. Vicarious trauma is part of the job and one that, working within a trauma-informed lens, needs its own attention. 

“Working with people with trauma has an inherent effect on us and our well-being,” says Housing First manager, Pio Giralico. “We're always acutely aware of the impact trauma has on our clients and the impact that it has on those of us who serve them.” 

In June, we spoke with the Housing First team who shared their reflections, insights, and techniques for dealing with the day-to-day trauma they experience in their work. 

Comments have been edited for clarity and concision.  

1. CULTIVATE A SELF-CARE SKILLSET: Work with a professional to develop self-awareness, learn and practice self-care skills and boundary-setting 

Chandra Sullivan, case manager:  Dealing with the trauma of our work is a skill set. It takes practice, experience, and a whole lot of self-awareness. Sometimes it takes hitting points where you know you're not doing well. I can say that when I first started out, it was very difficult. I had a lot of sleepless nights, waking up crying. That's just not how it is anymore.  

You really have to reflect and think, how can how can I survive through this intensity? It is a constant tightrope act between setting boundaries for ourselves and doing what we can for the person.  

I get support from the team and also my own personal therapist. Therapy is probably one of the most helpful things I do. Speaking with someone who is a complete third party who can talk to me about my job but also has a sense of who I am personally, and what's going on in my personal life, and can merge it all together, that has been and is still one of the best things for me. 

2. NURTURE YOUR PERSONAL SUPPORT SYSTEMS: Staying connected and engaged with family, friends, pets, hobbies and community promotes good mental health

Mark Dwyer, clinical lead:  A lot of the people that we work with are isolated; they don’t have people in their lives. I draw support from the people in my life: family, friends. I make sure that I reach out as much as possible. I don't need to ‘slime people’ with what's going on with my job, as we say in the biz. I leave that to therapy as well.

I draw my strength from coming home to my family, my dogs. Most of us are dog lovers; it seems like everyone has a pet of some kind.

3. MODEL VULNERABILITY & PRIORITIZE SELF-CARE: Reaching out for help shows that we’re all human; it builds connection, busts stigma, and inspires others to do the same

Lou Sevilla, case manager with lived experience: The young people in my family are definitely my motivator to continue this work. I went into recovery because I wanted to be a good role model. I wanted to, in the words of Brené Brown, model my own vulnerability, something that should be normalized in our society. As much as I am strong, I was able to show that side of myself, my vulnerability, and I think my whole family learned from that.

My family has definitely been a motivating piece for me, but so has going through my own lived experience and getting to a point where I could acknowledge that I needed help. Even though I was giving the help, I hadn’t been able to get the help myself.

I took on this role with “lived experience” in my title to be a walking billboard, a way to counter the stigma. I represent how someone can have this lived experience and go through this journey, know we're human and we can take care of ourselves.

Before I was hired into this role, I said that if I got it, I was going to fill the hope basket. I will give that gift of hope to folks because I've lived it. Doing that fills my hope basket.

4. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SAFE SPACES TO SHARE: Debrief difficult situations with trusted colleagues and confidants, celebrate successes, and take a mindful moment for gratitude

Pio Giralico, manager: I've been here at CMHA Toronto close to 20 years now and I’ve been really blessed with having amazing staff from the very beginning.

The team meets every Thursday. We have an opportunity to have a safe space and check in with each other. As Lou said, we lay our vulnerabilities down, and this creates a culture. We bring whatever stressors or challenges we’ve had throughout the week, and there is strength in doing that and getting support for it.

We always end on a celebratory note, a reminder of the good work that we are doing and the results we’re getting. Everyone who wants to will share and that's the greatest motivator of all.

I have a family, two young kids, and I have a dog – they re-energize me but I also had to learn, like Chandra said, how to compartmentalize after I’ve put in my nine-to-five. They wouldn't reenergize me as they do if I didn't learn how to do that, how to leave work behind when I leave work. So I’m able to come to work, get the support that's needed there, and then make home that place, that haven, that continues to refuel me.

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