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Vicarious Trauma

In July of 2015, a family lawyer in Winnipeg suffered severe injuries when a bomb was delivered to her office and was detonated. This incident hit our legal community hard. Sessions were offered to identify suspicious packages; a Personal Safety Handbook was developed and many lawyers became hyper vigilant. While many in our legal community were horrified, incredibly empathetic and wanted to help; others reacted differently. The impact on some involved very real trauma and the true fear that this could/would happen to them. A similar reaction occurred in 2007 when a Senior Crown Attorney was subject to an attempted home invasion, believed to have been related to a sentencing she had conducted the previous day. This incident also rocked our legal community, particularly other Crown Attorneys. At that time, I was not aware that such events could truly traumatize a person even though the incidents were not something they had experienced themselves. While many Crowns were clearly agitated and unnerved by the incident, others’ reactions were markedly different. They felt personally violated and clearly believed that their own safety was now at risk. A counselor was brought in for those who felt the need to de-brief and discuss the potential feelings this event may have triggered in some. This is when I first became aware of Vicarious Trauma (VT).

A significant amount of the literature and studies relating to VT (also referred to as Compassion Fatigue or Secondary Trauma) refer to occupations including the military, police officers, fire fighters and first responders; however, the issue is one that is becoming more widely recognized in our profession. Things such as viewing autopsy photos, dealing with the family of homicide victims, the violation of children and protracted and emotional family proceedings can, over time, have a tremendously negative impact on the psyche. VT does not only impact criminal lawyers. All lawyers are at risk depending on the nature of the cases they take on, the degree of empathy they express and whether they have difficulty in setting boundaries with clients. In March of 2012, the University of Washington School of Law delivered a presentation entitled, “Secondary Trauma & Compassion Fatigue When Working With Clients In Crisis”. They provided several “definitions” of what this means. Some examples included:

  • The result of absorbing the sight, sound, touch and feel of the stories told in detail by a victim and internalizing them.
  • Instant physical reaction
  • A disruption of deeply held beliefs. For example, having difficulty watching the news or reading the paper, believing the whole world is evil, etc.

Some of the trauma exposure responses described included:

  • Feeling helpless/hopeless
  • A sense that one can never do enough
  • Hyper vigilance
  • Diminished capacity
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Dissociative moments
  • Sense of persecution
  • Guilt & fear
  • Anger & cynicism
  • Addictions

Do any of these sound familiar? Have you noticed such behaviours in colleagues? If so, it is time to seek help or consider checking in with your colleague. However the impact of this trauma presents itself, your practice could be in serious jeopardy and no one wants to find themselves the subject of complaints or disciplinary hearings. One or more of these behaviours may affect a lawyer’s decision-making process, lead to poor listening and decrease the ability to maintain appropriate boundaries with a client(s) ultimately developing unhealthy, codependent relationships. One can see how the impact of developing this type of trauma could derail a career/practice.

So, what can you do? Be self-aware, are you noticing any of the symptoms described above? Feeling generally burnt out with nothing left to give? It is important to educate yourself and assess your own work/life balance. Discuss these issues with your peers. Are they experiencing the same types of feelings? Knowing you are not alone goes a long way to helping yourself and may help others. Many people do not realize why they are behaving or reacting a certain way. And always the remember the staples that everyone living a stressful and fast paced life can benefit from:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat properly
  • Get some exercise

— Colleen McDuff

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