Trauma exposure in law: What you need to know

Caroline Marlow, psychologist, explains that if you work in child protection, criminal, family, human rights, or immigration law, you will probably be regularly exposed to the trauma of others.

And you may well be personally affected by this trauma. This can become vicarious trauma (VT). Further, if unchecked or if you are repeatedly exposed, the problem can become even more serious and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD).

Culturally, and understandably, it can be hard for lawyers to admit to themselves or others that they are experiencing vicarious trauma or PTSD. They may find it hard to make sense of, or be embarrassed by, what they feel are irrational, emotional responses to the client's experiences. They may resort to denial or disguise in trying to maintain the traditionally-preferred resilient, objective professional identity. They may feel guilt at experiencing pain themselves about another person's trauma.

The problem is growing, due to the rise in current and historic trauma-related cases, and in the quantity and rawness of audio-visual evidence enabled through new technologies.

Exposure and repeated exposure to the trauma of others is not normal. But it is normal to experience a negative response following exposure to trauma.  Concern about vicarious trauma or PTSD should arise if symptoms persist after 4 weeks or if they have a negative impact on personal resources, work performance and life outside work. Beware; deterioration in mental health often occurs slowly over time – this can make it harder to notice.

What are the symptoms of vicarious trauma / post-traumatic stress disorder?

Vicarious trauma and PTSD have slight variations in their symptoms and signs, but both include:

  • Intrusive re-experiencing, e.g., nightmares, intrusive sensory flashbacks, or triggers that arouse intense distress and/or physiological reactions
  • Avoidance: of people, situations or circumstances that resemble or are associated with a trauma, e.g.: avoiding certain cases, clients, witness accounts and interview questions; dreading work; keeping busy; and being late or absent from meetings and work
  • Hyperarousal: being hypervigilant, with intense concern for client, self or family safety. Experiencing excessive case ruminations or an excessive emotional client involvement / preoccupation that potentially threatens professional boundaries. Becoming more easily upset or increasingly irritable, argumentative or impatient with others. Having difficulty concentrating, remembering things and sleeping
  • Emotional numbing, e.g.: experiencing decreased client empathy and / or detachment from family, colleagues and friends; feeling pessimism, cynicism or loss of hope; and increased engagement in unhealthy 'comfort activities' or risk-taking behaviour.

The individual's core beliefs about themselves, others, and the world can change, with a knock-on negative effect on personal identity, confidence and relationships.

What increases the likelihood of vicarious trauma / post-traumatic stress disorder?

It is more likely that a person will develop vicarious trauma / PTSD where:

  • they are regularly exposed to trauma or exposed in an unexpected way (Levin, 2003)
  • they have personal trauma experience in their past (particularly if they are exposed to the details of a similar trauma)
  • there has been a relevant change in their personal circumstances e.g. having children might increase vulnerability when exposed to child trauma
  • they are experiencing other stressors which lower coping resources.

So how can lawyers help themselves and what is the role of their employers?

What should I do if I have been exposed to trauma?

  • Be kind to yourself. Your heart and humanity enable you to achieve personally and professionally. But when you are exposed to trauma, you need to use those attributes to support yourself as well as others 
  • Talk about your experiences with people you trust. Build relationships through social support networks such as Claiming Space
  • Develop a personalised, preventative self-care plan and implement it consistently. Prepare a clear course of action that you would be prepared to take if you did become concerned about VT / PTSD
  • Ask for help. You could start by calling an appropriate helpline, such as the Samaritans, to offload feelings and for listening support. If symptoms interfere with life beyond the initial aftermath of the trauma exposure, i.e., beyond four weeks, you should seek professional help.

You could see your GP and ask for a referral for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a short-term therapy technique that can help you learn how to cope with VT / PTSD symptoms by helping you to change your thoughts and behaviours. If symptoms are complex or persist, it is recommended that you seek specialist trauma-informed support and therapy to deal with the why of the underlying trauma.

How can I help build a supportive environment for colleagues exposed to trauma?

  • Consider VT / PTSD as an occupational hazard, not a weakness. Traditional views that equate emotional detachment to professionalism or encourage 'toughening up' are unhelpful
  • Get to know the signs of trauma and the basic self-support approaches. Be alert to the signs among colleagues, and if you spot them, think about how and when you might open discussion, and how you might deal with different responses. Keep it simple; ask them how they are doing. If they don't want to talk, that's fine, give them time. If they do, it is most important to give them time, listen and engage empathetically with their response. If you remain concerned about a colleague, speak to a manager
  • Consider how your words and deeds might impact those with trauma exposure

What should law firms and employers do to support those exposed to trauma?

Trauma-exposed individuals should take preventative action, but individuals can't 'cure themselves' or be healed through 'quick-fix' training. Organisations need to make an active, long-term commitment to the organisational change required to create a supportive culture for those exposed to trauma.  

  • Know the extent of the issue

Be sure that you have a strong understanding of the potential impact of trauma on your people. To do this, organisations should conduct a VT / PTSD-specific risk assessment and cultural assessment.

The risk assessment is a full clinical psychology risk assessment of trauma-exposed staff members' roles and work environment to ascertain; the level of hazard exposure, the probability of harm, and the severity of consequence to members' health (as required by health and safety legislation). The cultural assessment is a formal and impartial assessment of trauma-exposed staff members' experience of how the organisation's culture, strategy and procedure mitigate against, and provide support for those with, VT / PTSD.

These should be completed annually and form the basis of a consistent and co-ordinated approach to trauma prevention and support. Management should also be aware of, and prepared to respond to, shorter-term exposure changes.

  • Encourage a collaborative approach to trauma prevention and support

Consider how strategy and everyday practice can destigmatise, normalise and break the isolation associated with trauma; colleagues should be able to hold emotionally honest discussions without fear of judgement or of being considered personally or professionally weak. Signpost appropriate, accessible and confidential trauma-informed support with the flexibility to meet individual needs and preferences.

  • Limit unnecessary and unexpected exposure

Consider reducing the number of trauma-related caseloads, increasing case diversity, and ensuring case management systems are as effective as possible. What needs to be discussed and who needs to hear it?

  • Provide respite

Ensure regular, effective daily and weekly breaks and holidays are taken; consider creating physical spaces that allow full detachment from traumatic material.

  • Create and nurture a supportive culture

Bullying and a long-hours culture are obvious in their toxicity, but other, more insidious behaviours that show a lack of consideration for others can also have a negative impact on personal resources, lives and work performance. This might include; derogatory remarks / nicknames, taking credit for others' work, passing blame, short-notice 'work-dumping', or shutting people out of networks.

Provide individuals with opportunities to develop positive, psychological wellbeing. This includes encouraging cultural norms that demonstrate kindness and respect, and enable individuals to feel valued: a sense of meaning and purpose helps people cope and flourish.

My thanks go to L&M Associate, Dr Sam Warner, Consultant and Chartered Clinical Psychologist, B.A.; M. Clin Psychol.; PhD; AFBPsS., for her expert advice regarding the clinical information provided within this blog.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

We've published a list of resources to help with managing your workload, coping with stress, mental health and contact details for organisations that can help

Read Caroline's 2018 blog: Is employee resilience training needed in the workplace?

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