Vicarious Trauma: ‘I think they’ll just haunt me forever.’

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Former court reporter, Tanya, is still traumatised by the cases she heard on the job. But what can other trauma workers do to reduce their chance of vicarious trauma?

For six years Tanya Martin worked as a court reporter in regional Queensland.

Each day she sat alone with earphones on, carefully listening to each word spoken during a criminal trial. Her job was to transcribe cases correctly. Tanya heard stories of petty crime, murder and child abuse.

“You'd have to go over and over and even if it's something that you couldn't stomach the first time, you had to listen again and again to get every word,” Martin told Insight.

While she was able to omit the details of most serious offences from her mind, there were two cases of child abuse she still can’t shake.

“It was the same case and it may have even gone on for a few days or a week… but I felt like I knew this victim really well by the end,” Martin told Insight’s Jenny Brockie. 

“What she'd been through as a child for four years… it was just things that you couldn't dream up.”

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Judges, barristers and court transcribers reveal what it's like to work in criminal law, from how they handle the sordid, lurid details to the complex, nefarious characters they come across.
Judges, barristers and court transcribers reveal what it's like to work in criminal law, from how they handle the sordid, lurid details to the complex, nefarious characters they come across.

A month of training gave Tanya a glimpse of what was to come, but she says it was not enough to prepare her for the vicarious trauma she experienced.

“I remember another time it was a toddler and it really affected me and I had to actually take my headphones off and walk away to have a cry,” she said.

“I recall going home and having a drink - which I don't ever do - just to try to sort of forget about it.”

Vicarious trauma is the cumulative effect of working with trauma. Some effects of vicarious traumatisation are so severe they parallel the experiences of the primary victim and manifest symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lawyers, psychologists and emergency workers are among those who are affected by second-hand exposure.

“You need another side of your life that isn’t about all the terrible things that happen to people or you burn out.”

Dr Deborah Wilmoth, a clinical and forensic psychologist who works with clients from trauma backgrounds, says it is crucial to continuously self-reflect to stop negative feelings from accumulating.

“Each week or each day self-reflect on how you’re going or how you reacted to clients so you’re always aware of how you are within yourself,” says Dr Wilmoth.

She believes it's important for people to find perspective outside of the job.

“A timeout is really important. If you’ve got holidays that you need to take, take them,” explains Dr Wilmoth.

“You need another side of your life that isn’t about all the terrible things that happen to people or you burn out.”

Vicarious trauma symptoms can be both short-term or long-term. Emotional numbing, social withdrawal, feelings of isolation and hypervigilance can all materialise from the job.

“This is the time you reach out to an assistance program or another colleague with more experience who can give you guidance. Even seeing a psychologist can get that perspective back,” says Dr Wilmoth.

For Martin, a Friday briefing about an upcoming case was the moment she knew she “couldn’t do it anymore.”

Almost a decade since Martin quit her job, she says: “I think they'll just haunt me forever.”

Source SBS Insight