By Tom Jarvis
To say lawyering can be stressful is an understatement, especially in the post-pandemic world of staffing shortages and overwhelming caseloads that legal professionals currently practice in.
But for some lawyers and judges, who are continuously exposed to traumatic material, that stress can be compounded by a condition called vicarious trauma. This can have a significant negative impact on their mental health, and without the right boundaries can lead to a higher risk of depression and anxiety.
Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma or secondary traumatic stress, affects people in the helping professions, like lawyers and judges. It can be described as mental anguish due to ongoing, indirect exposure to traumatic events through firsthand account or narrative.
“Attorneys often represent people who have been traumatized as victims of abuse, crime, or other adversity,” attorneys Becky Howlett and Cynthia Sharp say of vicarious trauma in their American Bar Association CLE, How Secondary Trauma Affects Attorney Mental Health.
Continuously hearing disturbing recounting of traumatic experiences from clients and witnesses can be overwhelming and lead lawyers—and judges to a lesser extent—to experience the same feelings faced by the trauma survivors in their care. Vicarious trauma typically involves a shift in world view, resulting in beliefs about the world being altered and/or damaged by the repeated exposure.
“As the matter unfolds, lawyers, staff, and judges alike may be exposed to emotional stories, highly charged situations, as well as gruesome and disturbing evidence, which can lead to secondary or vicarious trauma,” Howlett and Sharp say. “Symptoms include burnout, PTSD, irritability, difficulties with sleep and concentration, as well as diminished pleasure and interest in activities.”
While vicarious trauma exists in other fields—and other professions such as firefighting and policing—vicarious trauma is more prevalent in legal professionals who work in criminal, family, juvenile justice, and domestic violence cases, especially those involving harm to children. Those who have their own history of trauma are also more susceptible to vicarious trauma.
A precursor for vicarious trauma in the helping professions can be a condition called compassion fatigue, which is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. According to online mental health resource, GoodTherapy, while some of the symptoms are similar, “compassion fatigue differs from vicarious trauma in that it is not typically characterized by the presence of trauma-related symptoms and does not necessarily involve a change in one’s world view.”
The term “vicarious trauma” was originally coined in 1996 by authors, Karen W. Saakvitne and Laurie Anne Pearlman, in their book entitled, Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization. In the book, they explore the contributing factors to vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue and how they affect each person, which includes the individual’s current life circumstances, history of trauma, coping style, and personality type.
Jill O’Neill, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Lawyers Assistance Program (NHLAP), says that paying attention to your emotional wellbeing is key to reducing the risk of vicarious trauma. She cautions against dismissing some of these symptoms in favor of putting up a front.
“Paying attention, having self-awareness, and not being afraid to reach out are very important,” O’Neill says. “Oftentimes we see individuals who start to isolate and retreat. Things have been stewing a while, and they will internalize it as a character deficit, rather than really understanding they may be experiencing one or all of the signs of burnout, compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress. Instead of recognizing it, they see it as a character flaw. But it’s important, if you’re feeling these things, to reach out and talk to a professional.”
O’Neill says that NHLAP is available to help struggling attorneys. The organization has a collection of resources and self-tests on their website, lapnh.org, and they can refer lawyers to in-network providers.
“We can make it easy for busy professionals and do a lot of the legwork,” she says. “And under NH Supreme Court Rule 58.8, any contact with NHLAP is 100 percent confidential.”
The American Bar Association says vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue can be mitigated by being aware of the conditions and periodically self-assessing for them. They also say it can be helpful to talk regularly with other practitioners about how traumatic material affects you. And of course, O’Neill stressed, seeking professional assistance specializing in trauma may be beneficial.
“There is still a fear and stigma that prevents people from reaching out and acknowledging that these types of vulnerabilities—whether it’s burnout, secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue—are real and are treatable conditions,” O’Neill says. “But we are starting to see a positive shift in the field where more individuals are calling in [to NHLAP] self-referred. It indicates more of the message is out there, that professionals are not alone, and that it’s okay to not be okay.”