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Professional Helpers: The Super Human Stigma

Professional Helpers: The Super Human Stigma

by Dr. Michael Sorsdahl, RCC


One of the largest issues that first responders like Military, Fire Fighters, Police, Paramedics, 911 operators and first line helpers like Nurses, Medical Doctors, Psychologists/Counsellors, Social Workers and the like face is that of Trauma/PTSD, Vicarious Trauma, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout. These first line helpers are exposed to traumatic incidents and/or discussion of those traumatic incidents as part of their work, which I believe must be addressed.

We as helpers do not always think we need to look after ourselves, because part of our caring nature is to put others first. This essential and important trait of our first line helpers necessarily places them at risk to experience and exhibit negative symptoms and effects that can interfere with life satisfaction and living. Being aware that PTSD/Trauma, Vicarious Trauma, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout is not just common, but is in fact expected by those that work in this field is an important distinction that needs to be understood and prepared for. Moving into ways to increase resilience and becoming more proactive will hopefully lessen the negative effects that working in these professions create.

Understanding what to look for is important in the proper response to and ultimate prevention of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue that can lead to complete burnout. Vicarious trauma looks very much like PTSD and trauma symptomology as laid out in the DSM-5, which include exposure to a traumatic event (like hearing details about one), existence of intrusive symptoms (like thoughts or behaviours), avoidance of traumatic triggers, changes in mood or thoughts, reactions and arousal changes in general, and feeling highly distressed and interfering with life for more than a month.

Compassion fatigue is a little different, and a few of the symptoms include:

  • Changes in personal identity and world view
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Becoming easily emotionally overwhelmed
  • Numbing of atypical feelings towards people and events
  • Loss of connectedness to others and the self
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulty connecting with joy.

If, as a helping professional, you feel one of those symptoms, you may be suffering from the adverse effects of working in this profession. Understanding that these symptoms are natural reactions to the abnormal events we experience as part of our job is the first step to finding and maintaining our own wellness. When we are unable to help ourselves, then how can we actually expect to help others? Just as importantly, when we experience these expected injuries by the nature of our work, we take them home to our families who then can also experience the negative effects just as much as we do.

Other ways to help the helpers in addition to the normal professional coaching and counselling that can be sought from experienced professionals in this area, are from workshops and education that focus on building resilience for those working in the helping profession. Creating workable and helpful self-care plans that are designed for you, as well as becoming more aware of your personal triggers or markers that indicate that self-care is sliding or not working have become extremely beneficial. Strengthening current personal self-care plans to become more robust and helpful and designed to consider the work that we do cannot be overstated.

My counselling, coaching, and education practice, S.A.J.E. Wellness & Transition in Victoria, BC, recently hosted a mental health awareness event for Vancouver Island focusing on these specific issues. We are hoping to make this an annual event for all helpers, including professional counsellors, ultimately lifting the “super human” expectations attached to being a professional helper and the stigma that entails. I believe that by focusing on raising the awareness about the natural consequences of being a first responder and helper it will help minimize the stigma of getting help when needed, and potentially help build that needed resiliency through more training and workshops designed to increase self-care. I believe it is our responsibility as helpers to not only help those in need, but to help the helpers who put their own lives and happiness on the line for others.


Dr. Michael Sorsdahl specializes in trauma therapy (PTSD), career coaching, group training & education, LGBTQ+ and complex life transitions. Outside of his Victoria-based practice, S.A.J.E. Wellness and Transition , he teaches at the University of Victoria as a sessional instructor in the Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies (EPLS) department. He is an instructor at Yorkville University in the Masters of Arts in Counselling psychology program and currently holds the honour of being an Aide-de-camp to the Lieutenant Governor of B.C.


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