Back
Image Alt

The Singapore Law Gazette

Vicarious Traumatisation

Prevention and Management Strategies for Legal Professionals

Introduction

It is well-established that rates of depression and other mental illnesses are high in legal professionals. Emerging research has identified that judges, lawyers, and interpreters are also at increasing risk of vicarious traumatisation. Vicarious traumatisation can occur as a cumulative effect of working with individuals who have had traumatic experiences. It can also develop following a single traumatic incident for the legal professional, such as viewing particularly horrific crime scene photos or reading through a victim’s impact statement.

Individuals who have been vicariously traumatised may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, almost as if they had experienced the trauma themselves. This can include intrusive thoughts and images, restlessness, difficulties focusing and concentrating, preoccupation with the distressing material, changes in sleep, mood, and appetite, and avoidance of people and places that may be associated with the distressing material. Ultimately vicarious traumatisation not only impacts an individual’s emotional well-being and personal life, it also impacts their ability to work.

Risk Factors that Contribute to Vicarious Traumatisation

Legal professionals who work with high levels of expressed emotion are at increased risk of burnout and vicarious traumatisation. Areas of family law that are particularly challenging can include:

  1. Custody disputes involving young children.
  2. Cases involving allegations of child physical or sexual abuse.
  3. Working with children in out-of-home care.

Areas of criminal law that are particularly challenging can include:

  1. Working with violent offenders.
  2. Working with sexual offenders.
  3. Working with individuals who may face the death penalty.

Other challenging areas include working with:

  1. Victims of sexual assault.
  2. Victims of domestic violence.
  3. Victims of child abuse.
  4. Victims who are targeted due to their minority status.

Professionals who work with accident compensation claims are also at risk of vicarious traumatisation due to the traumatic nature of the material. Other work-related risk factors can include:

  1. Unhealthy or toxic workplaces.
  2. Interpersonal conflict with colleagues and management.
  3. High-stress working environments.
  4. Poor management.

Individual risk factors can include:

  1. Personal experience of a traumatic event.
  2. Predisposition to depression and anxiety.
  3. Tendency towards avoidance as the primary coping mechanism.
  4. Lack of social and familial support.

Legal professionals who are going through a stressful period of time in their personal lives, such as experiencing divorce, loss, grief, financial difficulties, and relocations, are also at increased risk of vicarious trauma in their workplace. Those who are already suffering from a diagnosable mental illness such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder, are also at increased risk.

Preventing Vicarious Traumatisation

It is inevitable that professionals working in family and criminal law will encounter highly traumatic material in the course of their work.

Identify Potentially Traumatic Cases

Identifying these cases early on will help you to manage your caseload. It will also signal to you that you need to implement your self-care strategies early on, rather than waiting until you experience symptoms of vicarious traumatisation later down the track.

Manage Your Caseload

Knowing what material is most challenging for you as an individual will be useful in helping you manage your caseload to prevent vicarious traumatisation. Some professionals will decline working with certain material (eg, child sexual abuse) as they know that it will be too challenging for them to work on that case without suffering from burnout.

Work Together

Working with a partner or team on the more challenging cases can be helpful in preventing vicarious traumatisation. Communicate openly and debrief with each other after being exposed to traumatic material.

Be a Trauma-Informed Practitioner

Equip yourself with the knowledge to manage highly emotional clients by becoming a trauma-informed legal practitioner. There are professional development courses specifically designed for legal professionals who work with distressing material that can help you upskill to prevent and manage vicarious traumatisation.

Take a Break

Switching off from work can be challenging for many high-achieving, high-performing legal professionals. Schedule time out from work where you do not answer work calls, and do not read or respond to work emails. Taking breaks allows you to rest, re‑energise, and re-focus.

Managing Vicarious Traumatisation

It is likely that you or one of your colleagues will experience vicarious traumatisation at some point in your career. It is important to remember that being traumatised by distressing material is not a sign of weakness – it is a sign that you are human.

Identify Symptoms

Vicarious trauma can impact a person’s physiology, behavior, and emotions. Physical symptoms can include:

  1. Heart palpitations.
  2. Irritable bowel.

Behavioral symptoms can include:

  1. Increased use of alcohol.
  2. Avoidance behaviors (eg, avoiding clients, avoiding social events, avoiding colleagues and staff gatherings).
  3. Frequently “venting” at work.
  4. Impaired ability to make decisions.
  5. Increased conflict with colleagues, family or friends.

Emotional symptoms can include:

  1. Feeling emotionally exhausted.
  2. Low mood.
  3. Anxiety, panic or distress.
  4. Feeling hopeless or guilty.
  5. Compassion fatigue.
  6. Cynicism and anger at work.
  7. Diminished sense of enjoyment.
  8. “Spacing out” at work or at home.
  9. Experiencing intrusive imagery and thoughts.
  10. Emotional hypersensitivity.
  11. In extreme cases an individual may even have suicidal thoughts.

Engage in Self-Reflection

When you are working with traumatic material, take the time to self-reflect. Ask yourself how you are managing and whether you are experiencing any of the abovementioned symptoms. Reflect on how well you are taking care of yourself and whether you need to seek support.

Seek Support

If you suspect that you are suffering vicarious traumatisation or if you believe you are at risk due to the nature of the material that you are reviewing in the course of your work, seek support. Your organisation may have an Employee Assistance Program that allows you free psychological support as part of your employment. Alternatively, you can contact the Law Society Members’ Assistance & Care Helpline on +65 6530 0213. You can also get in touch with a trauma-informed mental health care practitioner in your area.

The Importance of Self-Care

Engaging in regular and consistent self-care will help you prevent and minimise symptoms of vicarious traumatisation.

Physical Self-Care

This can include eating regular healthy meals, exercising regularly, getting medical care when needed, getting enough sleep, and visiting your doctor for annual checkups.

Psychological and Emotional Self-Care

This can include making time for constructive self-reflection, increasing presence and mindfulness in your daily life, actively decreasing stress in your life, engaging in positive coping strategies, finding intellectual stimulation outside of work, and seeing a therapist or psychologist, spending time with friends and family, treating yourself kindly, and allowing yourself to express your feelings.

Spiritual Self-Care

This can include making time for prayer, mediation or reflection, participating in spiritual gathering and feeling part of a community, fostering optimism and hope, expressing gratitude, celebrating meaningful milestones, nurturing others, and contributing to a cause that you believe in.

Professional Self-Care

This can include taking your lunch break away from your desk, finding projects that promote growth and are rewarding for you, balancing your caseload, setting limits and boundaries with clients and superiors, getting regular supervision, and spending time with co-workers.

Conclusion

It is likely that legal professionals working with highly emotional clients and traumatic material will experience burnout and compassion fatigue at some point in their career. In order to prevent and minimise the risk of vicarious traumatisation, legal professionals should upskill and become trauma-informed practitioners, engage in self-reflective practice, maintain good self-care, and develop a positive attitude towards seeking help.

Consultant Psychologist
Promises Healthcare
E-mail: leeran@promises.com.sg
http://promises.com.sg

Mrs Gold is a consultant psychologist with expertise in forensic mental health, including medico-legal report-writing and managing high-risk and high-need clients. She also conducts workshops, training, and professional development seminars for the legal and mental health sectors.