Vicarious trauma and youth workers: a recipe for disaster.

Today I was reflecting on my career and the major traumatic events that I have seen. I was speaking to a class of school chaplains looking at trauma and abuse. As I was reflecting it dawned on me how many truly traumatised people I have come across. On average two suicides a year, more sexually abused young people than I care to recall, many drug and alcohol abusers and self harmers to name a few.  
 
When I got home I started to think of the many times I have struggled with the traumas of others. This vicarious trauma has almost taken me out of action on a number of occasions, mostly because of a lack of training and supervision. The biggest issue however, is that I care. When a traumatic event happens I actually give a crap. And this is the problem with our profession. Those who give a crap will always be at the mercy of vicarious trauma if they are not supervised and supported.
 
Today my class of chaplains looked at what trauma is, how it affects people and how to support people through trauma. What was lacking in the training was how as workers we deal with the vicarious trauma when it affects us. As a sector we need to develop a philosophy of self care that starts in the training rooms and lecture halls and follows us through to the end of our careers.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Why we need youth mentoring programs.

Recently in my state many of the youth mentoring programs have had to come to terms with losing their funding. This has led to a number of programs closing up shop and leaving many young people in the lurch. The big issue is that these programs provide much more benefit than they cost.
 
 
The sad fact is youth workers can’t do everything that our young people need. We need others to help! The best way I know of is to have a mentoring program. In my career I have been involved in a number of mentoring programs and they were all worth their weight in gold.
 
As youth workers we need to keep youth mentoring programs going… even if we don’t have the funds. We must provide opportunities to develop our young people and one of the best opportunities is to build their network. To have older people guide them through the storms and stress. To have people with similar interests build their knowledge.
 
We need  youth mentoring now more than ever!

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Is youth work suffering the death of a thousand cuts?

Over the past weekend I spent some time reading about the professionalisation debate which has swept the global youth work fraternity. I read that as an industry it is required of us to become more professionalised in order to cement our place in the human services sector. I read that we must become more stringent on who we let in and what we do to those who do not conform to the new ways. I read that we need associations to manage our professionalism in the same vain as nurses, psychologists and lawyers. I read and I wept.
 
There are few in the youth services industry which would not argue that we need to become more professional. There are even fewer who would argue that we don’t need more stringent requirements on those we allow into the sector. The issue that we see in the current professionalization argument is that we are forsaking youth work to be seen as equal to every other generic profession.
 
 
 
Youth work needs to stand up and be counted. There is little good in us becoming like every other cookie cutter profession. In doing so we will suffer the death of a thousand cuts. Every time we give up a little of our innovation or uniqueness to become more like other professions we die a little. When we become more like everyone else we lose something of ourselves.
 
Recently I was speaking with a youth work student who believed whole heartedly that the only way to do youth work was case management. She believed that the way she had been taught to do youth work over her studies was leading her into a case management role. This limited view came to bear as her lecturers sought to instil that case management was the highest form of professional youth work.
 
We are at the crossroads, and as I was told as a child we need to look both ways before moving forward. So far, most of the literature has not asked what the down side of professionalism might be… and this is the question that we most need to discuss. Because after all the fate of our sector rests on the decisions we make today.
 

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Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Change the future of youth work!!!

A number of years ago I was speaking to some colleagues about our concern that youth work as a profession was losing its ability to innovate and adapt to changing tides of funding and the needs of our clients. We spent a number of hours pulling apart the issues we saw and developing a thesis for change. We realised somewhere in the midst of our conversation that it was not good enough to simply point out the issues in the profession if we were not willing to do something about them.
 
Ghandi said that you must be the change you want to see in the world. We realised this quote so richly that evening. We realised that if we wanted a more professional sector we needed to be more professional. If we wanted a better trained workforce it had to begin with us. If we were to have a supportive and caring sector then we needed to care for ourselves and seek support. We realised that the first step in our journey was to be the change you want to see in the world.
 
We began Ultimate Youth Worker to be the change we wanted in the youth sector. What change do you want in the youth sector??? How will you be the change you wish to see???

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Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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2013 Australian Youth Affairs Conference wrap-up

From August 5-7 the team from Ultimate Youth Worker attended the Australian Youth Affairs Conference in Adelaide, South Australia. The conference was hosted by the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition the peak body for young people and the youth sector in Australia. For three days we covered the topics ‘youth participation’, ‘advocate for change’ and ‘support the sector’. On the third day our Director, Aaron Garth, spoke as part of the morning plenary session and delivered a training session on the development of a self care plan.
 
Aaron Garth presenting at the morning plenary.
 
Throughout the conference two themes emerged for the Ultimate Youth Worker team which we have been spruiking for well over a year. The first was the need for youth workers to have a better understanding of mental health. Whether it was the delivery of the mental health report card by Batyr and Young and Well CRC or the City of Casey youth services speaking about their online mental health tool, there was a clear need for youth workers to have a solid understanding of mental health and its effects on young people.

The second was how poor the understanding of self care strategies is in the youth sector. So many of the people we spoke to were near burnout or had people in their teams struggling with the weight of their roles. Many of the youth workers we spoke with spoke of pressures on them from their organisations and managers to do more with less resourcing and support.
 
Delivering the self care planning session.
 
The AYAC2013 was a great success. But in our eyes it just confirmed what we have been saying for over a year. Look after yourself and know more about mental health.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Why so difficult: Understanding theory doesn’t need to be fear inspiring jargon.

I was speaking to some of my students recently about their time in the courses I teach in. Many of the student said the felt ill prepared and that they found that many of the teachers were hard to understand. When I delved into this it was that the teachers took pleasure in showing off their academic prowess and made everything seem really hard to understand. Many of the students still did not have a good understanding of basic theories and youth work practices as their teachers were speaking a whole other language…academic pomp.
 
In class this morning one of my students stated that I taught very different than her previous teacher. When I asked what the difference was she said that the teacher she previously had liked to talk on and on and delve deeply into a topic without making the basics understandable. After the first few classes she felt lost and every class after that compounded her feeling of being lost.
 
I asked what she liked about my style and she said she could understand what I was saying because I spoke in a way they could understand. I don’t use a lot of jargon when I teach. I can, but I was once told that the mark of understanding was the ability to distil knowledge to the lowest common denominator. If you can’t understand it is often because the teacher is making it too difficult.
 
 
When I was in high school I sucked at mathematics. I could not understand algebra or algorithims and every year I fell further behind. In year ten one of my teachers realised that I had missed the basics and this was what led to my lack of understanding here. She spent a number of weeks teaching me the basics and had me caught up and surpassing my peers in less than a term. The main thing was I needed the basics and I needed to understand.
 
No one fails my subjects through a lack of understanding. I teach as if I am explaining to a ten year old until my students get it and then I move on. If you struggle with youth work theory and practices it might just be that you were poorly taught. get back to basics and rid yourself of jargon and you will get passed the fear of theory.
 

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Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Firm, Fair, Friendly but never Familiar: Boundaries in youth work.

Over the years I have been asked hundreds of times about how to set boundaries in youth work. I have spoken to this issue in youth work classes from certificate to degree level. I have spoken on this in supervision session and in seminars. I have also written about it in this blog. Recently I was asked if there was one thing about boundaries that I would pass on to new youth workers what would it be.

 

One line

I had a mate who had done Sgt. training in the army and one of the roles of a Sgt. is to supervise other troops. In the training my friend was told that when commanding troops he needed to be “firm, fair , friendly but never familiar”. My friend once told me this and it had always stuck.
 
 
In youth work we are often trying to lead our young people through the difficult trials of adolescence. Sometimes we need to be firm on the boundaries of our role and their responsibilities. Youth work is all about social justice and as such we want to be as fair as possible when working with young people. Youth work is also a profession developed on friendship building skills. However, sometimes our clients see this friendliness as becoming friends with their youth worker. Which is why we can never become familiar with our young people.
 

One line sums up my ethic on youth work boundaries, “Be firm, fair, friendly but never familiar”.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Do youth workers really provide justice for young people in youth justice?

One of the first options put forward to my youth work class for gainful employment was working in the youth justice system. I looked into it with keen enthusiasm as it was one of the areas I was interested in when I first joined the course. I began looking at the policies and practice standards required of the sector and was excited to see the focus on restorative practices. I read some journal articles and blog posts and began to ask some questions. Finally, I asked a few people who worked in the sector what it was really like and my whole worldview was thrown into a spin. 
 
Many of the youth workers I spoke to felt like little more than jailers or parole officers. They felt that their role was to keep the young people  from causing trouble to society. They mentioned that they got to use some youth work skills however it was minimal. The focus of their work seemed to me to be clearly in the ballpark of retribution not restoration.
 
I was downtrodden. The system seemed to be talking the talk but not walking the walk. I was put in contact with a number non government support agencies to see what else was happening and my view became brighter. Group conferencing, crime prevention, family mediation and mentoring became my landscape of hope. Perhaps the youth justice system wasn’t so bad.
 
A number of the youth workers that I met in the statutory youth justice system were what I now know as canny outlaws. Rallying against the system these youth workers spend time building relationships, helping to keep young people involved in treatment programs and providing much needed guidance. The main thing is that these youth workers practiced youth work.

If you are a youth worker in a youth justice system, you need to remember that your first duty is to the young people. You are not a police officer, parole officer or jailer. You are a youth worker. If you remember that then you will provide justice to these most troubled of young people.

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Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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Mental state exam for youth workers: Cognition

Second last post this week for our series on Mental State Exams. Over the past few weeks we have been building an understanding of the core components of a mental state exam so that we can support our young people as best we can. This week I was speaking with a youth worker in one of Victoria’s largest Christian denominations about a mental health conference he was at. I was reminded about how important it is for all youth workers to have a strong understanding of mental health. So far we have discussed how a young persons appearance, behaviour, speech and language, mood and affect, thought process and content and their perceptions can provide indicators as to their mental state. Today we discuss how a young persons cognition can provide insight into their current mental health status.

 
In this section of the Mental State Exam we are looking at a young person’s level of alertness, orientation, attention, memory and executive functions. It is often this part of the MSE which requires the use of structured tests in conjunction to unstructured observation. However, an astute youth worker can use the basic understanding learnt here to gain a base level to work from. Cognition is observed through judging alertness, orientation, attention and concentration, memory and executive functioning.

When observing alertness we are looking into the young person’s level of consciousness i.e. awareness of, and responsiveness to their environment. Their level of alertness may be described as alert, vigilant, clouded, drowsy, or stuporous. If you are on a camp or at the end of a long Friday night youth group then alertness may be low. Conversely, on your way to a concert or game of laser tag alertness may be quite high. There are many factors which you must take into account when observing alertness. Rock, paper, scissors is a great game for testing the alertness of a young person.
 
Orientation is assessed by asking the young person their name, age etc (orientation to person) where he or she is (for example what building, town and state) and what time it is (time, day, date). What we are looking for is that they are oriented in person, place and time. People who have taken a big knock on the football field and are dazed are often asked these questions to observe whether they have a concussion. In the drug and alcohol field we often use these questions when people seem substance affected to judge how affected they are.

Attention and concentration are assessed by using structured tests such as series seven tests, or if you are in a pinch getting them to spell a five-letter word backwards), and by testing digit span. Here we are looking to see if the young person can keep their focus and concentration whilst completing given tasks. These tests are great for judging inebriation, attention deficits and anxiety.

Memory is assessed in terms of immediate registration (repeating a set of words), short-term memory (recalling the set of words after an interval, or recalling a short paragraph), and long-term memory (recollection of well known historical or geographical facts). If there is a severe issue with memory it may indicate dementia or neurological issues. Short term memory loss can be a symptom of anxiety.

Executive functioning can be screened for by asking the “similarities” questions (“what do x and y have in common?”) and by means of a verbal fluency task (e.g. “list as many words as you can starting with the letter F, in one minute”). The mini-mental state examination is a simple structured cognitive assessment which is in widespread use as a component of the MSE. These tests are looking at higher order brain functioning and a persons ability to stay on task. This is important for their ability to think in a critical way.

Note: The kind of brief cognitive testing discussed here are regarded as a screening process only, and any abnormalities should be more carefully assessed using formal neuropsychological testing.

Stay tuned for our final segment next week: Insight and Judgement.

 

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Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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What gets youth worker’s through stressful times???

In our work the staff at Ultimate Youth Worker meet with a number of downtrodden, stressed out youth workers who are just trying to keep it together. Why these fine examples of the social services sector have begun to erode is anyone’s guess. Overworked, under payed, vicarious trauma, limiting government policies and organisations that don’t care are all excuses we hear for burnout and workplace stress. But you know what we all face that, so why do so many fade away???

Youth work isn’t always fun!

The one thing that we see over and again that separates those who can push through stress and those who get squashed under the pressure is purpose. When the youth worker’s who are close to the edge are asked why they got into youth work it invariably is for a nothing reason. “I wanted to become a teacher and I though this would help“. “I just felt like these kids need help“. “People just need to give something back“. The worst offenders are those with altruistic motives.

“A difficult time can be more readily endured if we retain the conviction that our existence holds a purpose – a cause to pursue, a person to love, a goal to achieve.”- John Maxwell

Unless you have the courage of your convictions youth work will chew you up and spit you out. Youth work is a purpose that you need conviction to follow. A reason to wake up in the morning. A cause to pursue. A goal to achieve. Youth work is more than a stepping stone to your next career. Youth work is not something you do to warm the cockles of your heart.  Youth work is a profession that needs professionals with the right reason for being there… A real purpose.
What gets you out of bed in the morning???? Is your purpose to support young people to become the best they can possibly be? Or perhaps you are in it for the inordinately large pay check! If your own values and purpose aren’t clear then you are on a fast track to burnout.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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