Vicarious trauma

The Bar Association hosts regular CPD seminars on vicarious trauma, presented by Robyn Bradey, an accredited counsellor in private practice with over 36 years' experience. She regularly presents to lawyers on a range of areas from mindfulness and resilience to mental illness and suicide prevention. View the seminar via CPD Streaming [Login required] The following is an overview of Robyn's seminar, Identifying, Mitigating and Managing Vicarious Trauma in Legal Settings (©Robyn Bradey 2016)

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma (also known as Secondary Post Traumatic Stress) is the trauma you get from hearing or reading about someone else’s trauma.  It happens because as a species we have developed empathy, i.e. the capacity to imagine what it might have been like for another person suffering an ordeal.  Workers whose job it is to witness, read or hear the stories of traumatic events happening to the group they work with. (Obviously friends and relatives are also affected).  Commonly that is those who are working in police, military, emergency services, child protection, sexual assault, criminal law, family law, domestic and institutional violence, disaster response, refugees, aid agencies and terrorism.

Identifying vicarious trauma

Hyperarousal – having trouble sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, trouble sitting still, short fuse, lack of tolerance for those who aren’t suffering, startle affect, over reactions, rescue mentality, and a feeling like you can never do enough, a feeling that no-one understands the client or the work the way you do, pushing through working long hours, poor attention span. The so called black sense of humour becomes offensive to others and people claim to no longer be affected by the work as though that is an achievement.

Hypo arousal – tiredness even though they are often over sleeping, withdrawal, lack of motivation difficulty getting things done, tearfulness, forgetfulness, lack of enthusiasm, withdrawal.

Confusingly for the sufferer and those around them, these two sets of symptoms can alternate.

Somatic symptoms – aches and pains, lowered immunity, frequent low grade illnesses, accident prone, reactions to smells and sounds, nausea, headaches, tiredness, and increased accidents and injuries.

World view changes – such as seeing victims and perpetrators everywhere, thinking clients are lying or exaggerating stories or symptoms, (of course some of them are, but not, clearly all of them) becoming more anxious about things that didn’t worry them before, like catching public transport on your own.  These fears are also extended to family and friends, worries about children increase.  People can become over-protective of themselves and loved ones.  This can develop into anxiety and depression disorders. Or

Workers can become addicted to adrenalin.  This manifests in them taking uncharacteristic risks in their personal lives (affairs, gambling, driving fast, dangerous hobbies, drinking and drug taking). Whilst at the same time appearing indifferent to the needs of clients, colleagues and family members. 

These two world view changes can either stand alone and increase or, again confusingly alternate.

What increases the risk?

  • Any matters dealing with harm to children
  • Matters with graphic and violent photos or video evidence that needs to be viewed in detail
  • Previous or continuing mental illness, that is not managed
  • Isolation in personal life and/or in work setting, especially those working alone or in remote settings or where there is a lack of support and recognition of vicarious trauma in the workplace.
  • High workload
  • Working in a jurisdiction where the win rate is not high, like immigration law for example
  • Experiencing bullying or unresolved conflict

Be aware of the accumulative nature of vicarious trauma and the experienced worker who can go down with the “straw that broke the camel’s back”

Prevention and intervention

  • Recognise and validate the condition. Talk to new members of the floor and chambers staff when they arrive about it, normalise it and make it clear they should speak to someone senior sooner rather than later.
  • Make sure everyone has a mentor that they meet with regularly and train those mentors in detecting early warning signs, asking after wellbeing and checking for vicarious trauma.
  • Mark files with difficult material with warning signs. Make sure only staff who need to work on the file or the matter see the files. Make sure they are filed away when not in use.
  • Mindfulness practices help to put attention where it needs to be, not where it wanders too. Instituting mindfulness practices that can be done in the workplace both together and individually is a great thing to do.
  • Regular training about how to deal with difficult clients and material are crucial.
  • Manage and monitor workloads.
  • Take annual holidays and shorter breaks
  • Provide counselling when mentoring is not enough
  • Celebrate skills and successes
  • Keep reviewing, adapting and monitoring all of these processes.

Keep the workplace safe by:

  • Good occupational health and safety policies
  • Stamp out bullying and don’t be a bully yourself
  • Meet with other members of the floor and chambers staff regularly face to face
  • Encourage wholesome fun in the workplace that does not demean anyone
  • Manage change well as it adds to anxiety
  • Manage conflict effectively and in a safe timely manner
  • Treat everyone with the same courtesy and care you would the clients
  • Be grateful to chambers staff and thank them with words and gestures on a regular basis

Mentoring

Collegiality and mentoring is an important way to help barristers to stay well. Mentors should meet mentorees at least once a month, face to face, and ask directly: 

  • What is your workload and can I help you plan to manage it
  • “Have there been any matters that have stayed in your head more than usual this month?”  “What was the worst aspect of that matter for you?” “How are you managing it now?” “What strategies do you need to add?”  “How can I help you with that?” 
  • “What do you think you did well?”  Give them feedback about what you think they did well and focus on strengths. 
  • Applaud and support compassion, these are strengths not weaknesses.
  • “What have you learnt?”  “What if anything would you do differently next time?”
  • “What do we need to do differently here in the light of this experience?”  And if there is something, change or implement a policy or approach. This should be an ongoing process where learned experience is implemented into practice procedures

Mentors should note any changes in attitude and demeanour over time and raise them with the mentoree. They should also:

  • Take note of and discuss any drop off in performance
  • Work out a list of tailored, personal strategies to enhance wellbeing your mentoree can put in place.  Check on how they are going, each time you meet, add new ones lose the ones that aren’t helping and keep looking for more
  • Check on personal and physical wellbeing
  • Refer for clinical assessment should you become concerned

What individuals can do

Barristers can not only mitigate the risk of vicarious trauma and mental ill-health, but to flourish as well.  Always keep options open for yourself by developing other skills and manage finances. Feel proud of what you do and the skills you have learnt to do it. Follow the Five Ways to Wellbeing by connecting with colleagues, learning new languages, games, music and hobbies and by giving to charities.