By Blue Knot Review editor Jane Macnaught
Lawyers are focusing more on their mental health and the wellbeing and that of their profession, overall. The spotlight is also turning to the personal costs of working with clients who have experienced diverse traumas. Some legal practitioners are speaking out about their own challenges, including some well-known barristers and judges.
Randall & Haskell state:
Coupled with a busy work schedule, tight deadlines, and high levels of responsibility the risk of burnout is substantial. Vicarious trauma (VT), however is a different phenomenon, a recognized ‘cost’ of being exposed to traumatic material, day in, day out. Its effects can be pervasive and fundamentally impact one’s very sense of meaning and cause despair, loneliness and withdrawal.
Vicarious trauma can present with all the symptoms commonly associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but with greater awareness, and attentiveness to one’s own physiological reactions, the risks can be mitigated.
“Vulnerability to vicarious trauma cannot be overcome by will power and is not a sign of weakness. In light of the culture of law, this point needs to be clearly understood and emphasised. Rather it is situationally inherent in exposure to traumatic material over time.” p 16 - Trauma and the Law: Applying Trauma-informed Practice to Legal and Judicial Contexts
Normally we would consider frontline workers – police, firefighters, social workers and counsellors as being more susceptible to developing VT however:
“The legal profession’s vulnerability to vicarious trauma may be growing. There are increasing concerns that in a social media world, which encourages documenting every detail of a person’s life, the images, incidents, and issues facing lawyers and judges, are getting disturbingly more graphic. In the courtroom, in the office, in trial preparation, it is less and less about what someone said or even what they saw. More and more, it is about detailed and visual forensic evidence, crime scene photos, video clips, and other unthinkable images.” (Vicarious Trauma: the cumulative effects of caring.)
How prevalent is this issue?
“It is difficult to assess the prevalence of vicarious trauma in the legal profession [in Canada] and whether it is increasing. A study published by Jaffe and his colleagues in 2003 investigated symptoms of vicarious trauma, coping strategies, and prevention suggestions in 105 judges who completed a survey.
The majority of judges (63%) reported one or more short- or long-term symptoms they identified as a work-related vicarious trauma experience. Female judges reported more symptoms, as did judges with seven or more years of experience. In addition, female judges were more likely to report internalizing their difficulties, such as becoming depressed, losing their appetite, or suffering fatigue, while judges with more experience reported higher levels of externalizing or hostility symptoms including intolerance for others, anger, and frustration.” (Vicarious Trauma: the cumulative effects of caring.)
The previous quote is from Canada however here in Australia we also have high profile examples…
“…the recent comments and current advocacy of Victorian Federal Court judge, Shane Marshall. Justice Marshall, who has disclosed his own experience of depression, has become a vocal advocate for mental health issues to be addressed by the legal profession as `a necessity, not an option’
As an ambassador of the Wellbeing and the Law (WALT) Foundation… Justice Marshall is shining a light on the range of ways in which the practice of law and operation of the judiciary can incubate depression, anxiety, and other devastating health impacts.”
p. 11 - Trauma and the Law: Applying Trauma-informed Practice to Legal and Judicial Contexts
The risks and negative impacts of vicarious trauma can however be mitigated. To protect yourself the initial strategies are:
Self awareness and noticing changes or/and accepting feedback from well meaning family members, colleagues and/or friends who may become aware of your increased stress levels before you do, can be the first steps to mitigating the risks of vicarious trauma. So too can ensuring that your life schedule has a healthy balance of work, rest and play which includes socialising, connecting with and spending time with friends, colleagues and family members in your community. There are also specific activities which can help foster your capacity to tolerate challenging content e.g. journal writing, counselling, peer support, exercise, yoga, meditation, walking and so on.
If you would like to learn more and safeguard your well being you may consider attending Blue Knot Foundation’s Safeguarding Yourself: Recognising and Responding to Vicarious Trauma in the Legal and Justice Sectors professional development training. The training will help provide the knowledge, skills, tools and insights to better recognise the early signs of vicarious trauma, understand its dimensions, dynamics and risks, and engage in protective strategies, individually, professionally and organisationally. You’ll also be supported to develop your own wellness plan to enhance your professional resilience.
Read the full story Vicarious Trauma: the cumulative effects of caring
by Donalee Moulton in the Canadian Lawyer Magazine Feb 2015 here:
Download a copy of Trauma and the Law: Applying Trauma-informed Practice to Legal and Judicial Contexts
by Kezelman C.A. & Stavropoulos P. Blue Knot Foundation 2016 here: