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A common bond: How weekly self-care groups keep team members connected

04/01/24 12:00:pm

Trauma can spread, impacting even those who don’t experience it firsthand.

“We are hearing the same kind of terrible stories every week,” says Alyssa Burke, a therapist working in Trauma Recovery adult residential care in Oconomowoc. “It can feel quite isolating being alone with those emotions. At first, I was kind of thinking ‘Am I doing this wrong? Is this too much feeling?’”

Prolonged exposure therapy involves therapists working with patients to dive into their traumatic experiences.

“It’s very, very heavy material,” Dr. Chad Wetterneck, PhD, Trauma Recovery Services clinical director says. “Therapists are there to guide patients through the trauma, and they often naturally take on part of the situations they’re hearing. They’re going to go home and think about this stuff.”

Referred to as second-hand trauma, the emotional duress can impact anyone from therapists to first responders who in some way witness or hear about another’s traumatic experience.

“Part of our training as therapists and mental health professionals is learning how to empathize and connect with people,” says Melissa Du Bois, a therapist who also works the residential program. “When it comes to hearing some of these really hard things, ultimately, you’re still human.”

Just as trauma can spread, so can support.

“I would be worried if we didn’t take some of that with us, but at the same time, that’s why it’s really important to have a space like the self-care group,” Alyssa says.

A circle of support

It’s not therapy, but it can feel therapeutic.

That’s how Dr. Wetterneck describes weekly self-care groups for Rogers team members who work in certain trauma programs.

“In a way, it’s ironic that in our field, we may not always be the best at asking for help, even though we teach people how to do that,” he says. “It’s not that we don’t take care of ourselves at all. What we may need is just someone to listen to us. This is one way Rogers is trying to take care of folks who work in challenging positions.”

Since 2016, Dr. Wetterneck says team members who work in the Brown Deer and West Allis based PHPs and Oconomowoc residential program have been invited to the weekly self-care groups, where they can talk with others who also work with patients who share traumatic experiences. He says the meetings provide a safe space to discuss ethical and boundaries-related concerns, express gratitude, and recognize growth in oneself, all while fostering support across the clinical team.

He says sometimes therapists do have issues better resolved in their own personal therapy sessions, but the weekly groups are one option for a level of support team members find beneficial.

“You’re engaging in these very real conversations,” Dr. Wetterneck says. “They have to know that it’s normal for them to perhaps feel more upset, more scared. They may be a little bit more vigilant of their surroundings. In some ways, we have to normalize that and tell them it might not always be that way. If you’re reacting to things, that’s just you being human.”

Dr. Wetterneck says talking with others who may feel similarly can be helpful.

“It makes people feel a little bit more commonality with other folks, and that’s usually quite therapeutic. It’s recognizing that you’re part of a common bond across all of humanity, and that’s supportive,” he says. “We can’t do therapy with each other. This isn’t meant to replace therapy. But it may feel therapeutic.”

“We can get drained pretty quickly, but we also have this group and the support filling us back up,” Alyssa says.

A built-in routine and network

Within Oconomowoc’s Residential Trauma Recovery program, the Tuesday afternoon hourlong self-care groups have become ingrained.

“Unless they have to do something else, I don’t think there’s a single therapist who misses it,” Dr. Wetterneck says. “Sometimes when people are behind on writing some notes, they can multitask. That’s self-care, right? You’re getting what you need to get done and still showing up for yourself and team members. Everyone supports them and they feel supported.”

“It speaks to how important a commitment to self-care is,” Alyssa says. “I’m sure we all could find an hour of other work to do, but it’s knowing you need to build self-care in as a routine. It’s a proactive piece of creating a really supportive environment. Being able to both provide and receive that support can be really helpful.”

Therapists say the benefits extend beyond the hourlong meetings.

“I know I have gone to therapists just to check in when I hear they’ve had a rough day, and vice versa,” Alyssa says. “It’s not just a once-a-week conversation. The groups definitely shift the way we approach each other throughout the entire week.”

“If we take care of our staff, they’re going to be healthy. They’re going to be able to help others,” Dr. Wetterneck says. “But we’re not just training them just to be able to help others. Self-care groups are a way to make sure they’re attending to their own needs.”

While not all locations offer the weekly self-care groups, Dr. Wetterneck says if there is a psychologist interested in starting one, he is happy to teach them how to do it.

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