As artists and arts workers committed to community cultural development, we need get very passionate about what we do. In striving to do what we can for our community, we often neglect our own wellbeing in order to get the best possible outcome.
From 2011 to 2014, I headed up a team of people working on arts-led recovery projects in the Bundaberg, Fraser Coast, Gladstone, North Burnett and Rockhampton regions following the floods, tornadoes and storm surges that impacted the region through two waves of natural disasters. We were always very aware that during the project we needed to provide support to those who participated in the project who had been through a very traumatic time. In the various projects that were implemented including digital animations, narrative writing, weaving and circus; we embedded assistance from UnitingCare Community to ensure that experienced counsellors were on hand to support people if they were triggered and so they could identify people for follow up. Many people required this support and were referred to further assistance which was a great outcome for the project.
However, we were so involved in helping others that our team didn't reflect on our wellbeing until later. When I look back, I can see where the counsellors involved were checking in on us, but none of our team had been directly impacted by the natural disasters even though we lived in the communities where it had occurred We had "survivor's guilt" in a way. We couldn't possibly be feeling sorry for ourselves when all of these people had been through so much? Every ounce of our energy went in to supporting the nearly 2,000 people actively involved in the project.
It wasn't until the project was over that we could see the impact that VICARIOUS TRAUMA had been having on our lives. It was a term I didn't learn about until I attended some community nearly 6 months after the project completed. We had experienced vicarious trauma by living through the horrific experience of our community. We had also relived it through the stories we heard and the supportive role we had played throughout Afloat.
How had this played out in our personal lives? For some of us, it damaged our relationships. When accused of spending too much time on the project by our loved ones, we felt they were being selfish given we were helping so many people. It was all consuming. Some of the team sought counselling support once our needs were realised and with time, we were all able to identify the impact and implement self-care measures.
This is just one example. Many community artists and arts workers hear stories of hurt or trauma and it is something we are not necessarily trained to deal with. Trained professionals have check in and check out processes that they adopt to take care of themselves. In my experience, we don't do that well in the arts. Time to seek out that training I think!