Secondary trauma and pro bono

Pro bono work may involve supporting vulnerable or at-risk clients, which can impact volunteers’ own mental health. Claire Butler and Nina Garnham discuss the risks and how to protect your wellbeing.
Young woman working at laptop late at night, rubbing her temples with her eyes closed

Vulnerable or at-risk pro bono clients

Certain types of pro bono work will involve working with vulnerable or at-risk pro bono clients.

A client may be considered at risk or vulnerable for many reasons including:

  • age
  • mental illness
  • physical disabilities
  • learning difficulties
  • experience of trauma or violence
  • language ability

Lawyers should be aware that working with vulnerable clients can create challenges. Clients may:

  • struggle to remember details
  • be distracted, agitated or anxious
  • be trigged by recalling past events

Where necessary, you should seek prior training on safeguarding.

Secondary trauma

It is normal to feel affected by distressing material.

Pro bono volunteers working with vulnerable clients need to be empathetic, but empathy can increase the risk of secondary trauma.

Interacting with vulnerable/at-risk clients generally may affect the mental health of pro bono volunteers.

Exposure to distressing material, which includes conversations and written testimony, can lead to a risk of developing vicarious trauma (VT) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, more sensitive work is being undertaken at home. This has led to an increased risk of blurring boundaries between work and personal space, time and life.

It also:

  • makes it harder to get the essential environmental, social and emotional break and safe haven from trauma-related work
  • reduces access to support from colleagues, essential for psycho-social wellbeing and resilience

When to seek help

Volunteers need to try to be aware of their feelings and emotions as much as possible. Look out for the following thoughts, emotions and changes:

  • feeling unable to ‘switch off’ and/or being distracted by thoughts of the client’s situation
  • having trouble sleeping
  • feeling guilty for not having suffered in the way that the client has
  • feeling hopeless and unable to help

Pro bono lawyers feeling any of these emotions may be experiencing VT and/or PTSD and may need help.

Reach out to your pro bono manager, HR or your manager if you need further support.

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