"Feeling heavy"

Vicarious trauma and other issues facing those who work in the sexual assault field
ACSSA Wrap No. 4 – September 2007


Key aspects of the topic of vicarious traumatisation are summarised below.

  • Vicarious traumatisation is a normal response to repeated exposure and empathetic engagement with distressing traumatic material.
  • It involves physiological symptoms, changes in a person's views about themselves in the world, and potentially other adverse effects. Symptoms may be similar to the primary trauma survivors with whom the professional is working.
  • Connected to the experience of vicarious trauma, professionals working in the sexual assault field may also experience changes in their social relationships and 'public relationship'.
  • Working in the sexual assault field has been found to be particularly distressing when compared to other forms of trauma work, although the overall experience of trauma symptoms by those working with sexual assault survivors may still be relatively mild.
  • The experience of vicarious traumatisation is not limited to counsellors - other professionals who deal with traumatic material (both directly and indirectly) are also affected. However, vicarious trauma is still seldom recognised in these fields.
  • Vicarious traumatisation is predicted by extent of exposure to trauma. It may also be influenced by level of experience. Personal abuse history may be related to the experience of vicarious traumatisation, but vicarious traumatisation also relates to a separate trauma of its own.
  • Stigma is still attached to vicarious traumatisation, and this can make it more difficult to acknowledge and address.
  • Self-care for the individual includes cognitive, physical, spiritual, social and recreational, and verbal strategies.
  • Self-care strategies can regulate the amount of stress professionals experience and involve the development of skills, strengths and support to compensate for daily exposure to trauma.
  • Prevention or intervention strategies should not, however, unduly individualise the problem by only focusing on individual coping strategies.
  • The extent of support for professionals in their work environment is an important determinate of professionals' ability and propensity to engage in self-care activities.
  • The ways in which organisations can create a supportive environment for workers include ensuring appropriate and diverse caseloads, providing effective supervision, providing debriefing opportunities, providing staff and peer support, ensuring safety and comfort in the work environment, and overall creating a workplace culture that normalises the effects of working with trauma and puts necessary supports in place.
  • The organisational environment also needs to be seen within the broader social context that exists. This may create constraints and opportunities in relation to the supports it is able to provide.
  • Working in the sexual assault field can be a uniquely positive and reward experience. It may provide opportunities for developing personal strengths, witnessing the positive healing process of people who have been harmed, and playing a part in making a lasting positive contribution to society. For many, these positive aspects of working in the field will outweigh the negative aspects.