Upper Midwest Translators and Interpreters Association Offering Support Groups to Interpreters

The Upper Midwest Translators and Interpreters Association (UMTIA), an ATA chapter based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has teamed up with a local therapist in an effort to provide support for interpreters. In the fall of 2015, UMTIA started offering free support groups to interpreters coping with secondary traumatic stress (STS).1 Many interpreters, especially freelancers, are affected by the taxing nature of their work when called upon to interpret emotionally difficult information. Unfortunately, many lack a support system within their professional community.

Chris Mehus presents “Witness and Narrator: Addressing Problems of Secondary Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue in Spoken Language Interpreting” at the John Nasseff Heart Center in Saint Paul, Minesota. (Photo by UMTIA member María Emilce López)

Chris Mehus presents “Witness and Narrator: Addressing Problems of Secondary Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue in Spoken Language Interpreting” at the John Nasseff Heart Center in Saint Paul, Minesota. (Photo by UMTIA member María Emilce López)

The initiative began with a research project developed by two family therapists in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area who work with patients dealing with the effects of trauma. Dr. Christopher Mehus is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota and has a PhD in couples and family therapy. He has a private practice and works primarily with couples and people dealing with the effects of traumatic stress. Dr. Emily Becher is a research associate for the Parents Forever program within the Applied Research and Evaluation unit at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development. Her research interests include the promotion of healthy couple and family outcomes with a focus on co-parent education, psychological trauma, and intimate partner violence. Both were interested in the role interpreters play during clinical sessions.

When patients have limited English proficiency (LEP), therapists often call on interpreters to help facilitate communication during therapy and/or intervention. As Chris states, “as therapists and researchers working with interpreters in communities exposed to traumatic stress, Emily and I were curious to learn more about the experience of interpreters and their risk of secondary traumatic stress.” This curiosity led to an extended research project and eventually to a published study focused on input from 119 local interpreters.

It didn’t take long for Chris and Emily to realize something essential: “We conducted a study across Minnesota and found [among interpreters] high levels of compassion satisfaction [i.e., positive feelings about the work you do], but also high levels of secondary traumatic stress.” The study indicated that interpreters, just like many individuals in other service professions, are experiencing negative effects as a result of the nature of their work.

In March 2015, UMTIA began working with Chris and Emily to offer a three-hour workshop entitled “Witness and Narrator: Addressing Problems of Secondary Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue in Spoken Language Interpreting.”2 The training was quite successful, with many of those present recognizing the need for more support for professionals who might be suffering the effects of STS, and many attendees agreed with the therapists’ findings.

From that workshop a partnership evolved between Chris and UMTIA. Following the March training, UMTIA’s executive board discussed the situation and shared feedback they were receiving and decided to hire Chris to facilitate support group sessions for a trial period of three months. It was determined that the sessions would be offered twice a month in two separate locations to maximum the number of participants. All interpreters would be invited to attend, regardless of involvement with UMTIA, and the groups would be offered free of charge. Each session would last around two hours. The first half would focus on education, such as how to identify STS and strategies for coping. Attendees would be invited to discuss their experiences during the second half of the workshop and receive support from colleagues.

Chris Mehus explains his reasoning for facilitating the groups:

“Support from colleagues can be incredibly helpful, and this is what we are trying to facilitate through these groups. Few people understand the experience of interpreters as well as other interpreters. Supportive peers can provide validation, suggestions about coping or handling difficult situations, or simply an understanding nod. A support group can also combat the sense of isolation that many interpreters experience. For those who do not currently feel like they need support, a group can provide additional meaning to their difficult experiences because they are able to use these experiences to support and relate to others.”

UMTIA has since finished the trial run and hopes to continue offering these sessions to interpreters in the future, as they have been well received by the interpreter community. During the three-month trial period, some attendees came to just one session while others attended multiple sessions. These groups were structured deliberately so that attendees could sign up online beforehand or simply walk in. Those who attended had many positive things to say. One attendee remarked, “I found this group to be very interesting and helpful when it comes to networking. I also found it beneficial to meet other interpreters and to hear and discuss their thoughts, complaints, and experiences.” Another interpreter mentioned how he valued the group because of how isolating being an interpreter can be at times: “We really appreciate this type of support group, because as freelancers, we are like two ships passing each other by.”

As with any new initiative, there are some challenges UMTIA has faced with the support groups. One challenge has been getting the message out to those in need. There are clearly many people who would benefit from this type of support, but it’s not always easy to identify who those people are or how to best communicate with them. Additionally, in a time when our professional community is so focused on attending trainings and workshops that count toward meeting continuing education requirements, it’s a bit of a paradigm shift for interpreters to commit to taking time out of their schedules to take care of themselves.

Furthermore, since the sessions are free (with just a donation jar at the front by the sign-in sheet), UMTIA has taken on the cost of hiring the therapist. While there is no question that UMTIA’s executive board considers this a worthwhile investment and service to the interpreter community, cost is a necessary factor to consider when evaluating the sustainability of such an activity.
If you have any questions about how these support groups work or if you are interested in getting something similar started up in your area, feel free to contact UMTIA at info@umtia.org.

  1. Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder. Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence. (source: http://bit.ly/STS-explained)
  2. For a description of the workshop, including slides, please see http://bit.ly/UMTIA-STS-workshop. For information on upcoming events, please visit www.umtia.org.

Kristen Mages works as a staff interpreter at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI-Spanish). She serves on the Upper Midwest Translators and Interpreters Association’s executive board as the second secretary. Contact: kristen.mages@gmail.com.

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