Responding to Secondary Trauma Among Rural and American Indian Victim Service Providers in Montana
Little is known about victimization and its detrimental effects on health disparities in rural Montana. But emerging research may suggest that service providers across the state who help victims with crises such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse may experience significant mental and physical health problems themselves as a result. That, in turn, may jeopardize their ability to help others in rural areas where public health resources are already scarce.
Building on key informant interviews and focus group data collected among providers on the front lines, this CAIRHE project led by Dr. Kelly Knight and Dr. Colter Ellis identified rural Montana’s most significant victimization issues. Among them, results suggest, is the fact that victim-service organizations have difficulty finding, training, and keeping qualified and effective providers. This may be due, in part, to the health effects of the work itself, which can lead to physical and mental health problems and substance abuse among providers.
Ultimately, the efficacy of victim-service provision in rural Montana may be severely compromised, further contributing to health disparities among people of all types. Project data indicate that most victim-service providers, such as advocates, shelter staff, and child protective services workers, choose their roles because of their own personal histories of victimization. This appears to place them at increased risk for secondary trauma, a poorly understood outcome of empathetic engagement with traumatized populations. While this kind of secondary victimization can occur anywhere, the rural Montana landscape may make it more acute, since rural providers may not have the funding or health support systems they need to combat secondary trauma. Often they are the only professionals of their kind serving an entire community.
Since 2016, Drs. Knight and Ellis have pursued separate but related research on these topics in tribal and nontribal rural communities. In 2018, with a large team of collaborators, they coauthored and published two books—“toolkits” for recognizing and addressing secondary trauma among victim service providers. Their simultaneous projects in rural Southwest Montana and on the Blackfeet Reservation resulted in two different books shaped by local community advisory boards and their co-authors. Secondary Trauma in the Workplace: Tools for Awareness, Self-Care, and Organizational Response in Montana is designed for providers working in nontribal settings, while Niitahkspoommohspiinaan Niitahkspoommohstsiyo’p (“We are going to help ourselves, We are going to help one another”) resulted from the expertise and specific knowledge of the coauthors working on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Beginning in 2019-20, Dr. Knight is leader of a new CAIRHE research project with Dr. Ellis as a co-investigator.
Related Publications and Presentations (Selected)
Ellis, C., & Knight, K. E. Advancing a model of secondary trauma: Consequences for victim service providers. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Forthcoming.
Knight, K. E.,Ellis, C., & Murphy, S. T., et al. (2018). Vicarious victimization and related forms of secondary traumatization. In Huebner, B., ed. Oxford Bibliographies in Criminology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Knight, K. E., & Ellis, C. (chairs) (2015). Studying rural victimization: Challenges, methodologies, and findings. Roundtable session presented at the meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Washington, DC.
While Drs. Knight and Ellis are married, their collaboration in this research is a purely professional match. Both joined MSU in 2014, when Knight first proposed a victimization study for CAIRHE in keeping with her primary research focus. The challenge of studying these issues in Montana brought in Ellis, who is interested in rural settings and specializes in qualitative research.
“We’re learning everything we can about secondary trauma, and what we’re finding is that it’s understudied, it’s not well-defined, and there’s no known effective intervention,” Knight says. “It’s a challenging issue to study and address, but we think there’s some real room for growth in our understanding.”