"Feeling heavy"

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

Rewarding aspects of sexual assault work

This paper has necessarily discussed potentially negative and challenging aspects of working in the sexual assault field. However, researchers and practitioners alike also mention rewarding aspects of working in the field (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995; Schauben & Frazier, 1995). Some have even suggested that these positives outweigh the negatives, particularly if symptoms of vicarious trauma are mild (Brady et al., 1999). Paradoxically, these rewards are integrally linked with some of the challenges of this work.

A national survey of 1000 female psychotherapists in the United States found that therapists with a greater exposure to sexual trauma clients ranked high on levels of 'spiritual wellbeing'. It was found that the more the respondents were exposed to trauma material, the higher was their spiritual wellbeing. Practitioners who treated more abuse survivors reported a more existentially and spiritually satisfying life than those with less exposure to trauma clients (Brady et al., 1999).

As Herman (1992) writes:

Therapists who work with survivors report appreciating life more fully, taking life more seriously, having a greater scope of understanding of others and themselves, forming new friendships and deeper intimate relationships, and feeling inspired by the daily examples of their patients' courage, determination and hope. This is particularly true of those who, as a result of their work with patients, become involved in social action. These therapists report a sense of higher purpose in life and a sense of camaraderie that allows them to maintain a kind of cheerfulness in the face of horror. By constantly fostering the capacity for integration, in themselves and their patients, engaged therapists deepen their own integrity. (p. 153)

Many people who work with the issue of sexual assault are given the opportunity to witness and even play a pivotal role in the healing of people who have been harmed. Engaging with the broader social and even spiritual issues prompted by bearing witness to human trauma may provide the opportunity for interesting and rich personal development. Being prompted by this work to engage in proactive self-care may be an opportunity for a person to explore aspects of nurturing the self that might not otherwise have been considered. Finally, working in this field can mean making a positive and lasting impact on an issue of profound social and political importance.