We’ve all been there – you’re working with a client who has been deeply traumatised and they disclose something that makes you feel…weird.
Or maybe you’re familiarising yourself with a file when you happen upon a disturbing photograph of an injury. You press on, but something doesn’t sit right. Maybe not at the time, maybe later when you’re on the way home or cooking dinner and you can’t get that thought from your head. You start to question why these things happen, or maybe even why you studied law in the first place.
If you’ve ever felt this way, you might have experienced vicarious trauma. Lawyers are already overrepresented when it comes to mental illness.1
The firm that I work for, Ryan Carlisle Thomas Lawyers, recently organised for some lawyers and support staff to attend vicarious trauma training through the Blue Knot Foundation, the National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma. Criminologist and psychologist Michelle Noon ran our session on behalf of Blue Knot. Michelle regularly runs these sessions while maintaining an academic role at RMIT University and clinical roles in the community and in prisons. In other words, Michelle knows trauma inside out. The Blue Knot training outlines that vicarious trauma is not a sign of weakness but a normal response to working with people who have or are experiencing trauma. Signs of vicarious trauma can be confused with “burnout”, which includes emotional exhaustion and ‘Sunday Night-itus’ as a response to excessive workplace stress. Vicarious trauma is different in that it changes how you view the world, other people and yourself. I had a chat to Michelle about vicarious trauma and young lawyers.
What is vicarious trauma?
Vicarious trauma is a traumatic reaction to being around trauma. So, I guess I need to identify ‘What is trauma?’ Trauma is where…you have a reaction where you think you are likely to die. It sounds extreme, but in reality, because we are hyper attuned to threat, we’re frequently evaluating this idea that our lives might be taken away from us. What we also know about trauma is that it creates, informs and shapes our beliefs about ourselves, our beliefs about other people and our beliefs about the world… trauma is a transformative experience. For example, if I was a person who believed what a lot of people believe, which is that ‘good things happen to good people’, and then one day I come home and my house has been broken into, I then have to figure out what that means for me in terms of this belief that good things happen to good people but here’s this really crappy thing, this really awful thing that’s happened.
I have to review that information…to either accept that maybe bad things happen to good people …changing my core belief about the world. Or I have to reflect on myself and think ‘well, maybe I’m not actually a good person – maybe I haven’t been to church for a month or I haven’t called my mum back’. These are the things that can contextualise trauma for people. They change how they view themselves the world and other people. So, that’s what trauma is. Vicarious trauma is: us as workers, working with that. So, when people are having bad experiences where their lives are at risk (and that could be socially, emotionally, physically or psychologically) then that can rub off on us.
Are young lawyers more likely than older practitioners to experience vicarious trauma?
It’s hard to know, but what we do know about trauma, and vicarious trauma in particular, is that vicarious trauma is contagious. The more trauma you’re exposed to, the more vicarious trauma you’re likely to experience. So, what we might see with young lawyers is a few things.
[First], young lawyers are being put across a variety of different cases. In your case, you’re being put across family law and institutional abuse. [Then], as you [progress] through your career and specialise more, you’ll be working possibly on one particular type of case… that is going to have a different effect on you than working across all these sorts of different kinds of trauma, because suddenly, you’re getting these sorts of messages, where [with you, for] example, ‘where’s safe? If families aren’t safe and if institutions aren’t safe and you open the paper and the street’s not safe, then where are people safe?’. It can be really confronting from that perspective. So, I think possibly with young lawyers, having a variety of cases [is challenging].
The other challenge…young lawyers would probably face is realising they might be experiencing vicarious trauma, and who to contact for help. A remedy to vicarious trauma is obviously really good supervision and therapy. But young lawyers might not realise that they’re experiencing vicarious trauma so that might stop them from seeking help.
The third component is that young lawyers might feel that they have less control…if they’re going into court and they’re responsible for taking in all the files, but they don’t actually get to stand up and say anything, that’s a position of less control. [H]aving a sense of control may be partly protective for some people, so that could be really difficult for young lawyers.
And I think that the other factor is that early in your career is a really tough time. [The] first 10 years is really difficult, particularly for people who go into law who tend to be really high achieving or natural leaders and suddenly they’re toeing the line and are followers and that’s hard from an identity perspective. [Add] working with traumatic content that can all lead to real tension. I think that there’s a range of dynamics to consider.
So, do you think that vicarious trauma would be compounded by a young lawyer experiencing perceived failure in their work life?
It certainly could affect a person’s self-esteem and their wellbeing and that’s going to reinforce the vicarious trauma. What’s interesting about vicarious trauma compared to burn out is that vicarious trauma is really about the self and identity. So it changes how we as practitioners, like our clients, feel about ourselves, other people and the world.[If] our self-belief is that we’re really effective and we always get a good outcome and we’ve sort of failed at anything, or failure was [getting a grade at university of] distinction instead of a high distinction, then suddenly, we’re thrust into a world where things not being optimal is actually the rule and not the exception…how one would integrate that into their identity is a really interesting question.
Michelle and Blue Knot’s vicarious trauma training has helped the way I manage my files by giving me insight into how my clients are experiencing trauma. The session was informative and practical, and I have been able to weave aspects of it into my daily routine. You can find more information about Blue Knot’s training here.
If you feel that you are experiencing vicarious trauma, Michelle recommends seeking support through supervision, coaching or counselling and making time for self-care. Blue Knot’s helpline – 1300 657 380 – provides professional, short-term counselling support, information and referrals for ongoing support. Blue Knot Foundation also provides supervision services to legal and interdisciplinary teams.
For more information, see here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other helpful resources include 1800 RESPECT, which offers free, confidential specialised debriefing services for professionals who work in sexual violence, and the Beyond Blue website which provides excellent resources and is a good place to start for those seeking support.
Emma Muse is an institutional abuse and family lawyer at Ryan Carlisle Thomas Lawyers and is a member of the LIV Young Lawyers Community Issues Committee.
Original article on the Law Institute of Victoria Blog here.