Vicarious Trauma in the Time of COVID-19

How does the vicarious trauma caused by exposure to our clients’ suffering intersect with the stress and anxiety many are experiencing right now due to a global pandemic? If you have ever attended one of my CLE presentations, or met me in person, it is very likely you have heard me talk about vicarious trauma. I hope these discussions and others like them have helped us recognize a familiar experience for many of us in the legal community.

Vicarious trauma is one name for the concept that helpers can experience trauma as a result of working with people who are suffering. Exposure to other people’s trauma can result in a profound shift in the helper’s worldview and sense of self that is both cumulative and permanent. This process has many names, including compassion fatigue, trauma exposure response, empathic strain, secondary traumatic stress, or, as we know it – the cost of doing business in a profession in which we are exposed daily to other people’s pain. Do you think that vicarious trauma is affecting you? Find a self-test here:

In many professions and for the population at large, exposure to the constant news cycle about people getting sick is causing trauma. Physical distancing, changes in work environment or unemployment, and fears for ourselves and loved ones near and far are all taking a toll on our individual and collective well-being. One risk factor for vicarious trauma is the presence of other, non-job-related stressors. A number of articles discuss how the current state of the world is increasing vicarious traumatic stress.

For many lawyers right now, already high stakes in their practice areas have grown into overwhelmingly oppressive circumstances. Certain practice areas put practitioners at higher risk for vicarious trauma during “normal” times. Many of those practice areas are at increased risk from the detriment of the pandemic and state of the world.

Immigration – For many immigration lawyers − drawn to the work by their values and drive to improve outcomes for vulnerable people − the current policies make the practice feel hopeless. Already exposed to horrifying details of abuse and torture, lawyers are now left without avenues to help their clients, and that is resulting in significant mental health consequences for the helpers.

Criminal – In an area of law already fraught with traumatic material, compounded by the traumatizing effects of many of our systems, the dramatic changes in workflow have affected both practitioners and participants. From a sudden and almost complete stop to a near flood of cases on a daily basis, the already crushing pace of practice is now overwhelming.

JuvenileExposure to children’s trauma is more likely to result in vicarious traumatization of the helper. As vitally important public health recommendations have resulted in even more disruption and distress for children removed from their families, lawyers, case workers, and judges have been challenged to adjust to ever-changing circumstances in caseloads replete with pain.

Judiciary – In one small study of judges, 100% of them exhibited symptoms of vicarious trauma. Given the additional stress, uncertainty, and rapidly changing legal landscape, judges are in a uniquely high-stress and sometimes unpredictable environment.

Bankruptcy, employment, family law, and many other areas can also result in exposure to traumatic material.

If you are noticing any of the following symptoms, please reach out for help – you are not alone:

  • Perceiving the resources and support available for work as chronically outweighed by the demands
  • Having client/work demands regularly encroach on personal time
  • Feeling overwhelmed and physically and emotionally exhausted
  • Having disturbing images from cases intrude into thoughts and dreams
  • Becoming pessimistic, cynical, irritable, and prone to anger
  • Viewing the world as inherently dangerous, and becoming increasingly vigilant about personal and family safety
  • Becoming emotionally detached and numb in professional and personal life; experiencing increased problems in personal relationships
  • Withdrawing socially and becoming emotionally disconnected from others
  • Becoming demoralized and questioning one’s professional competence and effectiveness
  • Secretive self-medication/addiction (alcohol, drugs, work, sex, food, gambling, etc.)
  • Becoming less productive and effective professionally and personally