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The danger of being on the front lines is never just immediate. Sometimes, it’s the collateral damage that hits home.

This is true for combat veterans – many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), for law enforcement, for firefighters and correctional workers and, yes, for those working in community violence intervention (CVI).

Whether it is an outreach specialist in Memphis, or one in Chicago or Baltimore, there is not only a risk of burnout, but also secondary traumatic stress, or STS. In fact, a recent survey of front-line CVI workers in Chicago from 15 different organizations returned startling results:

  • 94% of workers reported at least one STS indicator in the past seven days.
  • A full 50% reported experiencing nine out of the 17 STS indicators.
  • The study, as reported in the scholarly journal, “Preventive Medicine,” showed that “STS responses of interventionists were impacted by on-the-job traumatic experiences, particularly the death of a client.”

DeWayne Hendrix, a retired federal corrections warden and a former associate warden at a federal prison in Memphis, gave a presentation at the recent Breakthrough Conference for community violence intervention workers: “Self-Care Isn’t Selfish.”

He says whether someone is serving their country, or their city via law enforcement or CVI work, the motivation is usually the same.

“For most of us who are in it,” he said, “it’s a calling.”

That belief opens a wide path for secondary traumatic stress.

“We tend to lose ourselves in the work because we’re so passionate,” said Hendrix, who is founder and CEO of Cordova, Tennessee-based New Daylight, which focuses on self-awareness, wellness and leadership training.

For most of us who are in it, it’s a calling.


Over his years working in corrections, Hendrix said he had an accumulation of trauma. And there came a point when he had to talk about it, or “unpack it.”

That need exists for anyone on the front lines today. But someone trying to help a Memphis gang member understand that if he puts down the gun there is a real opportunity for a better life, first must establish credibility and trust.

“There’s a code for these guys to respect you,” Hendrix said in an interview.

When outreach specialists have success and bring someone into a program such as Memphis Allies’ SWITCH or SWITCH Youth, that increases the emotional stakes for the CVI worker.

When participants backslide – or worse – it can feel very personal to the people who were trying to help them.

“You internalize things,” Hendrix said. “[You] start questioning yourself.”

This is why Hendrix says CVI workers should be doing the same thing he recommends for any emergency response personnel: practicing self-care.

That could mean finally saying yes to that long-delayed vacation, getting more serious about an exercise routine, eating more healthfully, keeping a journal, listening to music, meditating, or just spending time with family and friends away from work.

When people do not do these things, Hendrix said, they put themselves at risk.

He emphasized when front-line workers are struggling, they should take advantage of employee assistance programs and not worry about what anyone might think.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” he said. “It’s not OK to not ask for help.”

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