Hearing and seeing evidence of abuse can affect professionals, who need training to cope
The evidence of the torture and murder of 15-year-old Kirsty Bamu in the recent witchcraft trial at the Old Bailey dramatically highlights the issue of secondary traumatic stress.
This is a condition that affects professionals exposed either to clients who suffer or traumatic case content (or both). People at risk include lawyers plus secretarial and support staff.
Unlike burnout, which is a long process that can be prevented, secondary traumatic stress strikes suddenly, without warning. For example, the practitioner who saw video evidence of a baby being raped while a Christmas carol played in the background. Each time he hears the carol now he has flashbacks to those scenes. As a consequence, this father says he has become overprotective of his children. Another example is a family lawyer who took a statement in a case concerning child sexual abuse. That night she had dreams about the abuse her client had suffered, but transposed herself as the victim.
Nightmares and flashbacks to clients’ traumatic material are some common effects, but most symptoms are not so obvious. Left unattended, the cumulative effect of working on traumatic cases will affect health, wellbeing and professionalism.
The psychological and physical symptoms are similar to those in untreated survivors of trauma. These include numbness, drug and alcohol abuse, overworking and compulsive eating. One lawyer put on more than 14 kilos in six months following exposure to historic child abuse cases.
Complaints such as sleep difficulties, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and an impaired immune system leading to illness are also common.
Secondary exposure to trauma can affect personal and professional relationships too. Practitioners may find they have difficulty with intimacy issues when the traumatic material includes intentional violence and abuse. Isolation from family and colleagues is a recognised symptom. Research confirms that professionals lose concentration resulting in poor judgement, mistakes and becoming accident-prone. Cynicism is also common which, if not acknowledged, can express itself in the mismanagement of clients, delays in dealing with cases and forgotten appointments. Irritability leading to staff conflicts can also occur.
To date, legal education has not equipped practitioners with the skills, tools and knowledge they need to manage clients’ traumatic material. I suggest this is because any personal feelings or vulnerability expressed about cases and/or clients is regarded as unprofessional. Consequently, many lawyers are unaware of the impact of their work on them. People who have experienced a trauma in their lives and/or who are already stressed are more at risk.
Lawyers need to know how and when their cases can affect them, their staff, clients and families. They need to understand the nature and impact as well as the differences between compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatisation, burnout and secondary traumatic stress. They need to know how to perform a self-diagnosis, follow a self-care plan and whom to ask for help. There is a real need for education and training.
Lott, a former barrister, is the founder of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers