"Feeling heavy"

"Feeling heavy"

Vicarious trauma and other issues facing those who work in the sexual assault field

Zoë Morrison

ACSSA Wrap No. 4 — September 2007

This paper is about vicarious trauma, a normal response to repeated exposure and empathetic engagement with traumatic material. It describes what vicarious trauma is, how it may be experienced, and what may predict it occurring. It also discusses how individuals and organisations may address vicarious trauma, and the broader social context this work takes place within. While addressing the challenges of this work, the paper also considers some of the uniquely rewarding aspects of working with the issue of trauma and sexual assault.

It's 3 o'clock. A full day already; I'm on board 'til nine. My energy level is zero and I'm listening to an all too familiar story that makes my heart ache. Literally ... Every abuse story, no matter how familiar, hurts my heart this way, recreating the same pattern ... Healing begins with awareness. Our agency brings awareness to abuse victims that they have choices. They don't have to live this way. We don't have to live this way either. (Reinbrecht, 2003, p. 8)

'Vicarious trauma' is a psychological term used to refer to changes in a person that can occur when they are repeatedly exposed to traumatic material. In this paper, I outline what vicarious trauma is, the factors that make the experience of it more likely, and the ways it can be addressed. The paper addresses the issue of vicarious trauma, and other related issues, at three levels: the level of the individual, the level of the organisation, and the broader social context within which they exist. The aim of the paper is to provide a resource for those working with the issue of sexual assault; to understand, prevent and address vicarious trauma; and to indicate future directions for research and advocacy efforts.

The paper is written for people who work in the sexual assault field, and for people working with the issue of sexual assault in other professions (for example, lawyers, judges, police, nurses, doctors, other health workers, educators, researchers, community workers, church workers, and so on). The paper is also relevant to those who work in overlapping and related violence and trauma fields, such as domestic violence and child protection.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Sarah Crookes, Jackie Burke, Cameron Boyd and Daryl Higgins for their very helpful comments and suggestions on the topic of this paper. Many thanks also to other people and groups around Australia who greatly assisted our thinking on this issue, but who prefer to remain anonymous, including the person who educated me about "feeling heavy".

Publication details

No. 4
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, September 2007.
12 pp.
Suggested citation:

Morrison, Z. (2007). "Feeling heavy": Vicarious trauma and other issues facing those who work in the sexual assault field (ACSSA Wrap No. 4. Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

by Zoë

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