Heal the Healers: Support for UH Hilo staff who care for survivors of trauma

The program will do a series of training and technical assistance sessions to train and support staff working with students who have experienced trauma.

By Susan Enright.

17 people assembled for group photo, back row standing, front row lower, ocean in background.
UH Hilo and Joyful Heart Foundation staff at recent Heal the Healers retreat in Hilo. Courtesy photos.
Four women working at round table, each writing on papers in front of them.
Staff at recent Heal the Healers retreat in Hilo

Student Health and Wellness Programs at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo is among six organizations selected to join the Joyful Heart Foundation’s “Heal the Healers Hawaiʻi” project.

The initiative, funded by the Atherton Family Foundation, supports a series of training and technical assistance sessions to train and support staff working with students who have experienced trauma.

The program also seeks to strengthen organizations to counter “vicarious trauma” through policies and procedures. Vicarious trauma refers to secondary traumatic stress often experienced by professionals helping trauma survivors.

University staff who provide direct support services to survivors of child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and sexual assault are invited to participate in the Heal the Healers Hawaiʻi project.

Profile photo of Sulma Gandhi
Sulma Gandhi

“We are thrilled about our collaboration with Joyful Heart Foundation,” says Sulma Gandhi, program director for UH Hilo Student Health and Wellness Programs. The programs at UH Hilo provide holistic care that integrates education and prevention efforts with medical and mental health services.

“The first (Heal the Healers) session gave our team skills and tools to effectively respond to vicarious trauma,” explains Gandhi. “This further enhances our capacity to support students who are survivors of sexual assault, dating and domestics violence, and child abuse and neglect.”

More about the need for the Heal the Healers program:

When trauma occurs, it is as if a pebble has been tossed into a pond: ripples of the event are felt far beyond the original point of impact. Violence touches all the people and systems that come in direct contact with survivors, as well as those that play a role in managing the community response to the trauma.

Police officers, judges, lawyers, advocates, therapists, nurses, friends and loved ones—to just name a few—all have the opportunity to contribute to a community response of healing.

They are also vulnerable to the very real cumulative effects of bearing witness to suffering. Guilt, fear, feeling helpless and a sense that whatever we contribute will never be enough are commonly reported experiences.

Experts refer to these experiences in different ways such as vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue, however the common thread is that healers are suffering.

All too often, these professionals pay a profound cost in their lives in an effort to meet a demanding need, a cost that we at Joyful Heart believe is too high. One study, for example, found that 70 percent of domestic violence advocates met criteria for clinical levels of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our Heal the Healers program recognizes this cost and is dedicated to supporting the field in finding ways to uplift and support those who work in service of others.

The Joyful Heart Foundation

The Joyful Heart Foundation was founded in Kailua-Kona in 2004 by actress and advocate Mariska Hargitay of the long-running TV series Law and Order: SVU. The foundation has grown into a national effort to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end the violence.

The other statewide recipient organizations chosen for the Heal the Healers Hawaiʻi project are PACT: Parents and Children Together, YWCA of Kauaʻi, Immigrant Justice Center of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaiʻi, Women Helping Women Maui, and Hoʻōla Nā Pua.

“We are grateful to Joyful Heart Foundation and look forward to the next two years of continued support for our staff,” says Gandhi.


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.