Vicarious trauma may begin due to natural developed empathy, i.e. the capacity to imagine what it might have been like for the person going through it.
This empathy is a natural human reaction mediated through our mirror neurons allowing us to feel some of what they went through. Since the brain cannot make a distinction between a thought and an action, it may respond with the same ‘flight, fight, fear’ response as if it were happening to us. Hence symptoms may develop, and the longer or greater frequency of dealing with these issues, without intervention or reflection to manage the process, the worse the symptoms may be. Many people may be unaware of being affected until a major incident (sometimes unrelated) triggers a response.
Many professional workers have jobs that require them to witness read or hear the stories of traumatic events that have happened to the people they work with. Commonly those working in police, emergency services, army, criminal law, family, law, sexual assault, domestic and institutional violence, child protection, immigration and medical, disaster and war settings are most at risk.
Wellbeing at the Bar would like to thank Robyn Bradey (Mental Health Consultant working with the Australian Bar) for assisting with the development of this resource.
The following are a few symptoms of vicarious trauma:
Your chambers or organisation should consider:
“The fact I am writing this at 2:30am on a Monday morning is a case in point. I am a busy junior at the criminal bar with a practice of almost entirely serious sexual cases. I find it impossible to switch off, and particularly when my children (now adult) were younger, deeply distressing having to watch DVDs of children being raped, tortured and abused and then going home to my own family…when one is doing rape trials back to back for weeks and months it is very hard to achieve a level of normality in daily life and I know I am not alone in this.”
Anne Richardson, Senior Junior, 30 years of call
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