"Feeling heavy"

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

Stigma and vicarious trauma

"When the topic of vicarious trauma came up in our presentation, the audience grew still ... After the presentation, after the supper and drinks had begun, people started talking about how their work affected them. Maybe it's a difficult topic to discuss."
Comment by a researcher after presenting a paper on vicarious trauma at a meeting of sexual assault counsellor advocates.

While recognition of vicarious traumatisation and other associated issues has increased, it can still be difficult to acknowledge, disclose and address. This has been found in the research. For example, in a study of domestic violence counsellors, while counsellors were proficient in talking about domestic violence issues and had the language to do so, less thought and discussion had been given to the impact of this work on the self (Iliffe & Steed, 2000). This is not perhaps surprising given the social context within which work on sexual assault takes place, and given the ways experiences of vicarious trauma have traditionally been understood. Much research on vicarious trauma in the past was focused at the level of the individual worker, and particularly their so-called 'coping strategies'. This approach has now been criticised, because it individualise[s] the problem (Bober & Regher, 2006), potentially leaving individuals feeling that the experience of vicarious trauma is somehow 'their fault'. Furthermore, the experience of vicarious trauma may differ for different people, again making it seem as if it is a personal issue, rather than a normal and expected reaction to repeated exposure to traumatic material.

As would be expected, attaching stigma to vicarious trauma has been found to negatively affect a person's ability to access necessary assistance to recover (Brescher, 2004). Because of this, it is important to detach stigma from the experience of vicarious trauma. One way of doing this may be to locate the 'cause' of vicarious trauma with trauma itself, and its social causes, rather than with the individual workers and organisations who must deal with these issues. Addressing vicarious trauma appropriately, without stigma, means that workers are able to continue to support victim/survivors, and enjoy their important role.

In the following sections, strategies professionals can take to address their own experience of vicarious trauma are discussed. It is demonstrated that the success of these strategies, and a professional's ability to engage in them, will be influenced by the level of support received by workers within the organisation they work in. It is also suggested that people's and organisations' ability to deal with vicarious trauma will be influenced by the broader social context within which sexual assault work takes place.