Even the helpers become patients when extra stress brings burnout


April 26, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Robert J. Wicks is a professor and the director of program development in the world's only doctoral program in pastoral counseling -- at the Columbia campus of Loyola College.

Because his specialties are "integration of psychology and spirituality" and the secondary stress disorders usually called burnout, he said, his patients are likely to be helpers in need of help: emotionally exhausted physicians, nurses, psychotherapists, teachers, police officers, firefighters, ministers, rabbis, priests, religious sisters.

Dr. Wicks, 47, a New York native who once studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood and who received his doctorate in psychology from Philadelphia's Hahnemann Medical College, thinks the public is too ready to believe that the clergy are guilty of sexual misconduct. He is concerned about the effect of such suspicions on the morale and effectiveness of many good priests.

He has published more than 20 books and numerous articles. One of his favorite ways to relax is to tend his garden in the ## Glenelg section of Howard County.

Q: Are care-givers working under more stress today than in the past?

A: Yes.

I was in Cambodia last May helping English-speaking workers from around the world deal with their chronic stress level -- what we call burnout -- and also with a new phenomenon that's not well-known. It's called vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder.

When stress is outside the ordinary realm of experience, such as in Cambodia, a number of things happen to people. They have an exaggerated startle reaction. They're jumpy, and there's a look of horror. They have sleep problems, problems in interpersonal relationships.

The irony is that when I was in Cambodia, there was shooting outside the room at night. But in areas of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the gunfire is night and day. As a result, incidents of people carrying the psychological pressures of post-traumatic stress disorder have increased dramatically in this country.

Q: Is a higher level of violence the principal cause of stress?

A: There are others. During the Reagan and Bush presidencies, we kept hearing about holes in the safety net. Now we're seeing the results: more pressures on social workers, psychologists, therapists, relief workers, teachers, guidance counselors, police officers, firemen, priests -- even politicians that we frequently malign but who in fact are the social service vanguard. The pressures are sad to see because we're not really addressing them.

Q: What do you mean?

A: In many cases, rather than seeking to rehabilitate a psychologist who may have done something wrong, a physician who may have done something wrong, a priest who may have done something wrong, we're quick to wash our hands of the situation. It's because of all the liability and because of the hue and cry.

The hue and cry make sense to me, but washing our hands of these people does not make sense. I guess what I'm worried about is that, across the helping professions, the demands are greater than ever.

Q: You speak of priests "who may have done something wrong." Do you think they are being treated fairly?

A: First of all, we don't have any evidence that pedophilia, for example, is any greater among the clergy than among any group that deals with children.

In the past, there was a great deal of secrecy about such cases, but the opposite is true now. If there's a problem, it's that priests -- like police officers so often -- are not considered innocent until .. proven guilty.

They don't have the status they had 40 years ago. That causes stress, and it causes morale problems.

We're in a period of change. I really don't know where the Spirit is leading the church. People who are called to the priesthood in a changing church are very courageous people.

Q: Are there more pedophiles in the priesthood now than there used to be?

A: I don't think there's an increase. It's just that more cases are coming to light. It's true of abuse of children in the broadest sense, including sexual abuse, not just pedophilia.

It's good, it's great, that they're coming to light. But the sense I have is that it's not prevalent. What complicates the statistics is that it's longitudinal. We're seeing cases that happened 20 years ago. In some cases, we don't even know whether it's pedophilia. One case is too many, but the numbers are not extensive.

What I'm concerned about is that we're making judgments based on emotion and impression, and affecting people who are doing a good job.

One advantage to all of this is that we're putting in safeguards, in the schools, in medicine, in the ministry.

Q: Is the Catholic Church responding adequately to the problem?

A: Safeguards that most schools and dioceses have put in place are fine. And I'm for investigating charges with great vigor. I mean I can't imagine too much vigor.

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