With COVID-19 challenging how we work, Deputy Director Pauline Connelly recently spoke to Social Work Talk about vicarious trauma on the front lines of community services.

Research commissioned by Centacare identifies key measures to help community service workers minimise the effects of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout.

Released late last year by Centacare and UniSA’s The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise, Understanding Vicarious Trauma  reveals the strength and resilience of our dedicated workforce, but warns the constant demand for staff empathy and compassion can take a heavy toll.

The research recognises the strength workers take from client stories, and how small wins inspire hope, resilience, self-worth and a sense of purpose.

`For heads of departments to be able to
give themselves permission to ask the
question, ‘how are our workers going?’ That
actually makes us very vulnerable to ask
that question. Because when we ask it, and
when we get the answer, then we have a
responsibility to do something about it.’
– Pauline Connelly, Deputy Director

 

Centacare’s internal culture, strong peer relationships, and the need for time and space to help workers counter the emotional demands of caring for our most vulnerable, are among other core themes in the research.

The study commends Centacare as a leader in working to ensure the wellbeing of staff but notes vicarious traumatisation is a `ticking timebomb’ and requires immediate and ongoing attention across the wider community services sector.

To read Joanne Young’s conversation with Pauline, click HERE.

To download a copy of our research paper, click HERE.

 

Centacare is encouraging South Australians to step outside and connect to culture in National Reconciliation Week (May 27-June 3).

With COVID-19 restricting NRW events, people are urged to explore their own backyards to unearth Australia’s story.

From street names to towns, suburbs, parks and public spaces, many of the places we live and frequent every day provide an insight into Aboriginal people and the nation’s history.

“Our relationship to the land underpins Aboriginal law and spirituality, and is fundamental to our identity,’’ says John Lochowiak, Manager of Aboriginal Services.

“But that connection we feel to country can be difficult for others to understand.

 

“Learning the traditional stories of the land can help the wider community to connect with our culture and accept it, even if they don’t understand it.’’

 

John says venturing out into your neighbourhood and beyond is a good place to start.

He points to the Adelaide Kaurna Walking Trail, which snakes its way around some of our most recognisable landmarks. Along the trail, sculptures and plaques tell the story and language of the traditional custodians of the Adelaide Plains.

For example, Victoria Square, near Centacare’s Adelaide office, once the main camp of the Tarntanya (Red Kangaroo Dreaming) people.

Or walks such as the Tjilbruke Trail, which flanks the southern coastline. A Kaurna creation ancestor, Tjilbruke helped create the Kaurna landscape while grieving for his nephew, Kulultuwi, who was killed after he broke a juinyunta (taboo) forbidding him to eat kardi (emu).

“In each place Tjilbruke cried, there are permanent water holes,’’ says John.

“A huge part of reconciliation is sharing these Aboriginal stories.

“They enable us to look at places differently. With understanding, we are able to see past the steel and concrete that’s there today and feel empathy with what it meant to lose our people and places.

“Where there’s a lack of knowledge you tend to get myths, and myths are usually negative.

“Go outside, go for a walk, look around, close your eyes and listen.’’

*This year’s NRW theme is `In This Together’ – collectively we can build relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories, cultures and futures.

 

Deepa Rana has been a volunteer for nearly half her young life.

She started giving her time for a good cause aged just 13 when she approached her local Laligurans Youth Club in Nepal to see if they needed help.

Soon, Deepa was balancing schoolwork with other acts of kindness in her community.

“It gave me inner satisfaction,’’ she says. “I got to meet so many young people the same age as me, so it was like spending time with my friends.’’

Deepa’s drive to help others grew through her teens when she found herself drawn to programs that supported vulnerable young people.

But it was when she and her husband moved to Adelaide last year that volunteering assumed new significance in Deepa’s life.

Through Volunteering SA, Deepa found Centacare.

After a formal recruitment process, the 29-year-old was matched to the Outer North Youth Homelessness Service, which provides case management and other supports to young people aged 15 – 25 years who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Deepa’s responsibilities include sorting donated goods, updating service data bases and liaising with property managers.

On hold due to COVID-19, Deepa says the role has helped her to feel welcome and valued in a foreign city, while also teaching her about the Australian way of life.

“After coming here, I was very down, but everyone at Centacare has been so helpful and nice,’’ she says.

“I’ve learned how the organisation works and about Australian office culture.”

“It makes my mind feel fresh and happy to learn new things.’’

Deepa, who is currently doing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Digital Management and Healthcare Management, says volunteering has shaped her as a person because of its ability to change lives.

“Volunteers have selfless hearts,’’ she says.

“They have pure intentions and help so many people, and that also helps themselves.’’

*We are currently celebrating National Volunteer Week with the theme `Changing Communities. Changing Lives.’ For more information, please visit Volunteering Australia.

As we move into the next phase of COVID-19, Centacare is preparing to transition staff back into the workplace. Many people may have worries as we re-establish a sense of normalcy, as well as anticipatory anxiety and concerns about what our home, work and social lives will look like. Deputy Director Pauline Connelly has shared her thoughts to support people to manage their emotions at this challenging time.

 

I want to share with you some common feelings experienced during this time, and some things I have learned about myself and read about, that may be helpful to you.

This experience of being isolated from extended family and friends, of having choices taken away, of working from home along with working differently, as well as numerous social activities curtailed, all cause a variety of reactions within us.

I want to reassure you that a lot of what we are experiencing is a normal response to an abnormal world occurrence. We are not developing anxiety disorders or mental health issues that will stay with us, and we are not experiencing this alone, as there is a commonality about what we are all going through. Having said that, we all experience this commonality differently as we are different people.

Many people, along with me, have expressed that they feel extra tired. We are living with heightened awareness. Did I wash my hands? Was I too close to that person? Should I be touching that surface? Is that person too close to me in the supermarket?  Is it too soon to do what I normally would do with my friends, and if so, what can we do?

Having to think like this is very tiring and it is not a way we would ever have operated previously.

People are experiencing a range of emotions.

In the first stage of moving out of the office, there was for some, almost a honey moon period where all the pressure was off, and for others, heightened stress.

There was the initial adrenaline rush around the change, and people expressed how they worked in their pyjamas and there was a novelty to this. Others dressed for work each morning and quickly established boundaries at home, between work and home. (not easy sometimes).

Toilet paper was a most prized purchase, and not having to be anywhere or decide on what you wanted to do was almost freeing for some, whilst others felt trapped.

There was no traffic to worry about and most people felt a sense of safety being cocooned away in their homes, (if not a little bored).

Every day we watched the count and waited for the daily health report. There were endless discussions on social media about the cause, conspiracy theories abounding, while watching the horrors of what was happening to countries in Europe, UK and then America.

As this novelty began to wear off, the anxiety and tediousness of our day began to settle in, and many people reported that they felt quite flat some days, they were less tolerant of mundane things and felt often much more irritated with people or situations than they normally would have.

Once again, this is a normal response to an extreme once in a hundred year pandemic.

I heard a person from NASA speaking of the different stages the astronauts go through with their long term isolation in space, and they named it as the four quarters, and suggested that we may be now in the third quarter.

In the third quarter, astronauts go through tiredness, irritability, loss of patience, feelings of flatness and a lowering of morale, and thousands of people have described this during the time of isolation required with COVID-19.

Another phenomenon though in this third quarter, is that of knowing the end is in sight, and this for us is coupled with the number of zero days.

This can bring about a feeling of impatience, wanting it to be over right now. Like any adversity, when we can see the finish line in sight, it becomes a little more unbearable, and we can feel agitated about not being able to watch a footy match, sit in a restaurant, or go to our favourite venues for that much wanted social time.

Astronauts found that looking at the big picture and the reason they were on their mission, assisted them to deal with the range of emotions they felt, but the third quarter was a time of extreme experiences emotionally.

I want to suggest to you all, that once you start returning to work, you may also go through a range of emotions.

Many of you would have adjusted to working from home, and the new routine has become a familiar one. You could feel quite bothered about having to uproot again, and change the way you work while needing to establish something that once again feels normal.

This too is a normal part of how humans experience and adjust to dislocation, along with managing the threat they have felt to the risks of the virus.

Some of you will experience a level of anxiety around returning to work that you would never have experienced three months ago. We have to measure the actual risk (zero cases in SA), with our sense of the perceived threat, when we notice we feel anxious about being at our desks again, mindful of all the safety procedures Centacare has in place.

So it will be another adjustment to a workplace and a world that will remain very different in terms of long term safety procedures required. It will also remain different in our psyche as we continue with the adjustment to the fact that some things may never return to how they once were.

So when you return to work, don’t be concerned if you struggle for a while emotionally during this phase, and remember, human beings adjust. It will just require patience and inner strength.

Spend some time observing your emotions, be a bit curious about them, talk to your colleagues, manager or friends, and I suggest you approach this feeling of discomfort without judgment of yourself  or without concern that you will be stuck with these feelings.

I wish you all well, in whatever work you are doing and returning to, in the knowledge that you have always put the client first, and shown great kindness and courage in this, and I thank you for this.

Right now some of you will be feeling vulnerable, and I want you to know we are here for you, we care, and one day I am sure, some of you will be using what you learned in training, writing a paper on it or presenting at a conference about all we have learned as an organisation.

 

 

Azim Ahmed makes a mean kebab.

He’s been honing his recipe since he was a kid in Bangladesh, where he’d shadow his father in their kitchen and meticulously roll ground mince into neat, flat patties for the family to share.

Nowadays, it’s the regulars at Wandana Community Centre who taste the spoils of Azim’s cooking.

The 21-year-old is a volunteer kitchen hand at the Centre, where food is a uniting force every Wednesday.

For nearly 25 years, Wandana’s three-course `Lovely Lunch’ has been fusing friendship and fare.

When COVID-19 restrictions are not in place, up to 30 regulars gather each week to break bread, talk and reflect, while Azim – led by a chef – goes to work plating up staples of halal meat, soup, vegetables and sweets.

The role has given him a sense of purpose and a bunch of new friends, while providing him with vital experience in a commercial kitchen.

“I did a Kitchen Operations Certificate II at TAFE which qualified me as a kitchen hand, so I thought while I look for work, I’ll volunteer,’’ he says.

“I’m able to hone my skills and do something that I enjoy while helping people as well.’’

In addition to prepping ingredients and dishes, Azim sets tables, cleans the kitchen and packs up.

“I really enjoy the customer interaction; everyone is always happy and they acknowledge me for my efforts’’

Azim is among 30 volunteers at Wandana who regularly give their time to help deliver a range of programs, from beginners’ English classes to crèche, computing, gardening, dance, fitness and meditation.

“Cooking to me is a relaxing process. I like to experiment and take my time’’ Azim says.

“The best food requires time and patience.

“Relax, don’t rush, and follow the recipe, and you’ll make great food. But also, don’t be afraid to experiment and put your own twist on things.’’

To young people pondering volunteering, Azim says: “Make the effort because it’s a great way to learn new skills and do something good for the community.’’

*We are currently celebrating National Volunteer Week with the theme `Changing Communities. Changing Lives.’ For more information, please visit Volunteering Australia.

Struggling with over-eating amidst COVID-19? You’re not alone.

More time at home has meant more opportunity to snack and self-soothe through food to compensate for the stress and uncertainty coronavirus has created.

To support people to reshape their eating habits, PACE has invited psychotherapist and mind and body coach Nikki Lucas to present her 6 Steps to Conscious Eating webinar on Thursday, May 21, at 6pm.

The aim is to help people to understand patterns of eating in order to regain a sense of control and acceptance.

“I have endured many decades of struggle with my own poor relationship with food and body including severe binge eating,’’ Nikki says.

“This led me to study and understand why our relationship with food becomes distorted, and how to reduce its negative impact on our lives.”

The webinar will run for 90 minutes, including question time. To register, email pace@centacare.org.au

PACE Support Worker Astrid Welling says people often use food as a coping mechanism in stressful times, leading to feelings of shame or embarrassment for eating too much or too little.

This can come at the expense of self-kindness, which is crucial for emotional wellbeing.

“I’ve had countless people tell me they struggled with over-eating before COVID but more so now, and it’s causing them some distress,’’ Astrid says.

“Whether it’s through boredom, convenience or comfort, we are eating more than we usually would, but we shouldn’t punish ourselves for that.”

“Eating to self-soothe is a normal response. If you’ve put on a couple of kilograms over the past couple of months, it’s ok – you needed that comfort.”

“Gaining weight is not the issue; it’s the shame that follows. Attaching our value and self- esteem to our weight is something our culture has taught us to do from birth.”’

PACE currently runs two recovery support groups for people who struggle with eating, food and body image, in addition to providing one-on-one support.

 

Astrid’s tips for conscious eating

 

Practice consciously eating and think about why you eat

“What we end up doing is mindlessly eating,’’ Astrid says. “There are underlying reasons for that which take time to address.”

Reflect! Use COVID-19 as an opportunity to ask yourself: Why do I self-sooth externally? Are there new ways I can self-soothe internally?’

 

Break the habit

When you feel the urge to over-eat, try to be mindful in that moment.

Ask yourself: Am I hungry, or am I bored, angry, and sad?

There are ways of getting through this discomfort, such as counting and breathing through it.

The urge will pass. It’s a similar process to trying to quit smoking, or drinking, or the things you habitually do and want to change.

Ride the compulsion wave to break its hold.

 

Set a schedule

Make time to eat. Set an alarm if need be!

Conversely, those who don’t have good hunger cues may lean towards not eating in times of stress.

If you have to, make a note in your electronic diary to block out times to eat each day.

“It sounds a bit contrived, but when we lose our internal hunger cues, we need some regular external reminders to eat, and that’s ok,” Astrid says.

 

Shift your focus

Look at food differently.

View food as medicine during this time.

Make time to eat in a mindful, slower way.

Focus on health rather than calories.

Today we celebrate International Nurses Day on the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. At Centacare, nurses such as Karen Didenko play a crucial role in child protection, disability and drug and alcohol services. Amidst COVID-19, they have led the way with flexibility, skill, trust and compassion to keep clients and staff safe.

There are more than 20 million nurses around the world. Karen Didenko is one of them.

Karen joined Centacare six months ago as the only Registered Nurse in Centacare Disability Services.

She brings to the role more than a decade of community disability service experience, as an ever-present force for good in a sector whose faces inspire her daily.

“It’s more than a career,’’ Karen says.

“You can’t step into disability without a real passion for the people.

“If you have that passion, it’s a really rewarding way to spend your time and energy.’’

After working at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in various departments including a stint specialising in mental health, Karen switched her focus to community nursing.

In the disability sector, she found new ways to stretch herself in order to support those who often can’t verbalise how they’re feeling or what they need, yet can still communicate in volumes.

“The clients will draw on your heartstrings to a point because you really have to get to know them to know how they communicate,’’ she says.

“Once I get to know the participants, I’m yet to meet someone who hasn’t been able to tell me how they’re feeling, whether they can verbally speak or not.’’

Karen says community nursing demands a broad skill base and the ability to work largely autonomously, often with very little equipment, before drawing in other services as needed.

“You are reliant on experienced visual and tactile assessment skills, knowing the participant and listening carefully to the people who care for them every day,’’ she says.

“In a hospital, you can turn to the next person for instant advice. Whereas, in community nursing, if you need additional support, you have to make an appointment or phone call for a second opinion.’’

Karen points to the teams with whom she works across Centacare’s residential and respite sites in metropolitan and regional South Australia.

“The teams are dynamite; I’m a tool they can use in a well set-up service.

“The care that Centacare Disability Services provide and demonstrate on a daily basis is of a high quality. The staff are in-tune with the participants’ holistic wellbeing needs. I consider myself very privileged to be part of this team.

“The participants put a positive spin on the world, and they are able to put your own life into perspective. Their day-to-day challenges tend to be far greater than most peoples’ and, despite this, they are generally happy and able to thrive.’’

Karen recommends nursing for those who are passionate, motivated, have good assessment skills and are able to work alone or as part of a team.

“Nursing in the community with people who have disabilities is a very challenging and rewarding job.’’

Bianca Polidori has always leaned on her mother Carmen for advice.

But their bond has grown even stronger after Bianca followed her into foster care.

Today the duo will celebrate Mother’s Day for the first time since Bianca, aged 29, became Centacare’s youngest foster carer.

She not only joins her mum but also Carmen’s sisters, Terese and Doris, in the program that provides foster care placements for children aged 0-17 years of age under Guardianship orders.

Driven by a shared purpose – to reunite children with their birth families – the Polidori family has formed a mini “village’’ of care in Adelaide’s western suburbs.

Together, they nurture children and siblings who are living apart from their families due to child protection concerns.

“Mum is very opinionated but she always rallies to support me on the path I choose to take, and we’ve been able to support each other a lot,’’ Bianca says.

“It helps that we all live so close as well.

“I definitely don’t think I would have done this is if it wasn’t for her influence, but also if I didn’t have my partner Luke, who works in early education, and has helped with my understanding of child development.’’

Bianca worked in child care and was midway through a teaching degree when she commenced training to become a reunification foster carer.

Five months later, she and Luke welcomed a six-year-old boy into their home.

“I’m not a mum yet,’’ Bianca says.

“I always tell him, I’m your looker-afterer and your step home to get you back to your mum.

“The boy has a very, very strong bond with his mum and a real family identity, which we try and foster.

“So, for me, Mother’s Day is a day for her, and for my mum and Luke’s mum.’’

It’s also a day that Bianca hopes will instil a sense of pride in all mums who are living apart from their children but are working hard to make the necessary changes to get them back.

“My message to them is stay strong, because even though your kids might seem like they are a little bit more adjusted, and they’re getting the structure they need, they miss you every single night and their love for you knows no bounds,’’ Bianca says.

“All they want is to get back to you.’’

Bianca has seen firsthand the guilt and shame many mums experience when children are removed from their care, often due to complex challenges such as childhood trauma, generational dysfunction and neglect.

“They feel like they’re not good enough, but of course so many factors would have played a role in the events that have happened,’’ Bianca says.

“Foster care gives them a chance to regroup, reflect and, sometimes, just find themselves again so they can be the best parent they can be.’’

Bianca and her mum will celebrate quietly today, in line with COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’ve never really liked a big fuss about anything but I always get Mum flowers because she loves fresh flowers and it makes her feel super special,’’ she says.

Thirteen years fostering children has taught Lyn and Roy Matthews a thing or two about parenthood.

From delighting in the seemingly small and sometimes silly things, to endless patience and love, the couple knows what it takes to raise a happy child.

“It’s about giving them safety, because that makes all the difference,’’ says Lyn.

“And love and life experiences,’’ adds Roy.

Together, they share this knowledge and wisdom with the birth families of the children they nurture as reunification foster carers at Centacare.

The Matthews have fostered 20 children, for various lengths of time, including long-term, short-term and respite placements.

“It’s taught me to appreciate the little things in life; the things that you don’t often realise,’’ says Lyn.

“You tell a child to go to bed and they do, but they don’t put their pyjamas on because they don’t know any different.

“Or you teach them to catch and throw a ball for the first time, or help a teenager to use a knife and fork. It’s all those simple things in life that we help with, things that most of us take for granted.’’

Currently the Matthews’ have a 6-year-old in their care.

The girl will spend Mother’s Day with them tomorrow but has mailed her birth mum a special parcel.

“We made a card for mum and have taken some photos to send with her favourite chocolates,’’ Lyn says.

The couple is mindful it will be a difficult day for some mothers who are working hard to make the changes needed to reunify with their children.

“I have a philosophy: hope for the best and make peace with the rest,’’ Lyn says.

“We do the best we can do for the child and then we hope everyone else does their bit too.’’

Lyn says foster caring has given her a different view of motherhood: “It’s taught me that a mother is not necessarily a biological mother; that different people can mother children.

“As the saying goes, it takes a community to raise a child, and it really is very much like that.’’

Every week, Family Preservation worker Gemima Joyce drives north to see a family-of-four with a monster named Morton perched on her passenger seat.

The corduroy critter is one of four tactile characters enlisted by Centacare to help children unlock their experience of trauma through sensory exploration.

Susan kitten, Ellen the caterpillar, and Ollie monkey round out the crew, but it’s Morton who the children can’t wait to see when Gemima visits.

For them, the monster is a novelty, but `Morty’ is quietly serving a much bigger purpose by helping the family’s youngest boy to explore his feelings, identity, and the experiences that have shaped his short life.

These same experiences lie beneath many of the boy’s challenging behaviours which Family Preservation is helping the household to manage, through a deeper understanding of what his actions represent.

“Initially, there was a lot of fear attached to his behaviours,’’ Gemima says. “They didn’t think he knew about his emotions and feelings because he would just explode, seemingly for no reason.

“I really wanted to help them understand his world a bit more, by seeing what he does with Morty. Play is everything for kids. Having the opportunity to tell a story through that can be really powerful.’’

Developed by the Australian Childhood Foundation, Morton and his crew live within a creative narrative landscape defined by a big tree.

Each doll has specific themes of experience and healing integrated into their design. These provide therapeutic support to address child protection concerns such as abuse, neglect and domestic violence.

In Morton’s case, a pocket on his back is filled with various Velcro facial expressions. With Gemima’s help, the boy uses these to explore his own emotions and the sensory responses each feeling evokes such as smell, taste and touch.

“We found that his feelings around what he felt and smelled for angry and sad were the same,’’ Gemima says.

“Faces, eye contact and body language can be quite foreign and scary to children

“Often, families will think children are not engaging when, actually, they are in a perpetual state of freeze or fear.’’

While traditional soft toys provide comfort and support children on the path to independence, Morton is helping the boy to process and, unknowingly, make sense of his experiences, Gemima says.

By engaging in stories with each character, he metaphorically represents the themes that are present in his own little life so that Gemima can work to address them alongside the family.

Gemima highlights the gradual introduction of Morton’s friends including Susan kitten, who is designed for children to hold and feel grounded and safe. A textured storybook constantina in the back of Susan’s head represents a set of dreams or imaginings.

“That has opened up conversations with him around what Susan kitty would dream of at night,’’ she says.

Ollie monkey has helped to identify the boy’s emotional connection to food which can sometimes lead him to over eat and steal his siblings’ meals. Made from soft velvet, Ollie has a big mouth full of textured snacks.

Shortly, Gemima will bring Ellen on her visits too, as a way of celebrating the boy’s resilience and hope for the future. Decorated wings fold out from the caterpillar’s back to represent transformation and change.

“It’s important to acknowledge with them how far they’ve come as a family, and the boy’s own journey of healing,’’ Gemima says.

* Family Preservation is a voluntary program and works in partnership with the Department for Child Protection to provide families with children from birth to 18 years with intensive one-year case management. Practical and therapeutic home-based services are provided, in addition to health assessements by a clinical nurse. 

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Meeting the Challenge

Centacare Catholic Family Services is a Catholic welfare organisation delivering a range of services across the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

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