Vicarious trauma (VT) is ‘the negative transformation in the helper that results (across time) from empathic engagement with trauma survivors and their traumatic material, combined with a commitment or responsibility to help them’ (Pearlman and Caringi, 2009, 202-203). The greater the exposure to traumatic material, the greater the risk of vicarious trauma. People who work in services to which people with traumatic histories present seeking help, or who work with traumatic material are at particular risk. This includes but is not limited to people working in health, mental health, housing, law enforcement, legal, emergency services and family services.
Vicarious trauma is not a sign of weakness. It is the cost of working with people who have experienced trauma and abuse – of bearing witness and of empathic engagement with those affected. It is important to differentiate vicarious trauma from compassion fatigue and burnout, with which it is often confused, and yet commonly co-exists. While the phenomenon of vicarious trauma is widely acknowledged, it can be challenging to recognise and deal with it. Its dynamics and `ripple effects’ are complex, pervasive and damaging.
Just as PTSD is perceived as a normal reaction to an abnormal event, VT can be understood as a normal reaction to the stressful experience of multiple exposure to traumatic material (McCann & Pearlman, 1990). According to Saakvitne et al. (2000) the most important element in trauma work is the attention paid to the experience and to the needs of the helper. No-one cannot meet the needs of clients when they are overriding their own.
Anyone working with people affected by trauma or with traumatic material can benefit for understanding more about Vicarious trauma, how to recognise the risks early and manage them.
Blue Knot Foundation delivers a range of professional development training programs to help managers and workers across sectors recognise and mitigate the risks of vicarious trauma. To find more go to Blue Knot's Managing Vicarious Trauma training page. Blue Knot also provides supervision to support teams working in the trauma space, and consultancy to guide organisations around strategies for mitigating vicarious trauma risk.