Vicarious trauma

Definition

Vicarious trauma is a kind of traumatisation that can happen when helping professionals are repeatedly exposed to the traumatic experiences of their clients.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma (VT) can include all the usual symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as hypervigilance, dissociation and sleeping problems.

There can be symptoms that are more specific to people working in helping professions:

  • major change in worldview, e.g. no longer feeling that people can be trusted or the world is fair
  • feeling like only you can understand your clients, and needing to hide what you are experiencing from your colleagues

Monitoring for VT and responding

  • regular supervision with a supervisor and colleagues is essential for sharing the load and, sometimes, identifying when a colleague is experiencing VT

A person experiencing VT should not be left to manage it on their own using regular self-care practices – instead, they should be referred for counselling and supported with regular supervision and, if appropriate, a change of duties.

Remember that onset of a psychiatric illness counts as a workplace injury and a disability for the purposes of anti-discrimination and occupational health and safety laws, so you should not suffer a detriment or lose your job because you have developed VT.

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