"Feeling heavy"

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

Experience of vicarious trauma in other related professions

While recognition of the experience of vicarious traumatisation has grown in the last decade, this has mostly been in fields such as trauma counselling. Indeed, most of the research on this topic has been applied to professional counsellors (Wasco & Campbell, 2002), with only limited attention given to the issue outside the counselling professions. Despite this, there is growing recognition that anyone who has extended contact with trauma victims or traumatic material is at risk of vicarious traumatisation (Wasco & Campbell, 2002). This includes legal professionals, health professionals, researchers and educators. Research shows that when the possibility of vicarious trauma is not recognised or acknowledged, people may be more detrimentally affected because there are few if any efforts to prevent or reduce this harm. This has led some experts to recently call for a widening of the recognition of vicarious traumatisation to other professionals exposed to traumatic material, as discussed below (Dunkley & Whelan, 2006).


Research has found that lawyers can experience high levels of vicarious traumatisation. A survey of lawyers working with domestic violence and criminal defendants found that lawyers demonstrated significantly higher levels of secondary traumatic stress and burnout compared to two control groups, which consisted of mental health providers and social services workers (Levin & Greisberg, 2003). The researchers suggested these symptoms related to lawyers with higher caseloads and having a lack of supervision around trauma and its effects.


"In the 25 years of doing my job, this is the first time I've ever heard someone mention the words 'self-care'."
Comment by policeman at workshop on secondary traumatisation run by a sexual assault service provider.

Similarly, police officers have been found to have significantly higher symptoms of psychological distress (including anxiety, depression, dissociation and sleep problems) and PTSD symptoms than mental health professionals (Follette, Polusney, & Milbeck, 1994). No research has been found that explores how experiencing vicarious traumatisation affects the ways lawyers or police (or other professionals) deal with victim/survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault in the course of their work.


Research has found that researchers who work in the field of sexual assault may be affected. For example, one study found that people researching rape (who worked only with archival data and had no personal contact with victims or offenders) experienced somatic complaints, sleep disorders, increased cautiousness, increased need for social support and emotional responses such as anger, anxiety, fear and sadness (Alexander et al., 1989, cited in Wasco & Campbell, 2002). As Campbell (2002) pointed out, the norms of research do not typically provide for such effects.