"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 the sexual assault field

Those of us who work with victims have seen or heard some of the worst that human beings do to other human beings. We have lost the luxury of innocence. (Arms, 2003, p. 5)

Research has found that working with traumatised clients is especially demanding, and can be distinguished from working with other 'difficult populations', because of the exposure of workers to emotionally shocking images of horror and suffering (Cunningham, 2003, p. 452). Counsellors working with sexual assault survivors, in particular, have been found to experience the 'symptoms' detailed in the section above (Johnson & Hunter, 1997; Pearlmann & MacIan, 1995; Schauben & Frazier, 1995). Therapists working with sexual offenders have also been found to experience vicarious traumatisation (Mouldern & Firestone, 2007). Indeed, research has found that working in the sexual assault field can be particularly distressing when compared with other forms of trauma work such as counselling clients with cancer (Cunningham, 2003) and a range of other therapy areas (Johnson & Hunter, 1997). Working with victims of interpersonal violence has been found to result in the highest 'traumatic stress' scores. Within the field of interpersonal violence, working with victims of rape has been found to be associated with greater disrupted beliefs (Bober & Regher, 2006). However, another study found that while a greater percentage of survivors in caseloads contributed significantly to therapists' PTSD-like symptoms, it did not contribute to disrupted cognitive schemas (Brady, Guy, Poelstra, & Brokaw, 1999). This study also found that therapist's trauma symptoms were relatively mild; that is, although therapists who treated more sexual assault survivors were likely to exhibit more trauma symptoms than their colleagues, the level of intensity of these symptoms was not severe.