Trauma’s Hidden Ripple Effects
During an end-of-summer family vacation (self care!), I paddled around a lake in a kayak. Every once in awhile a motorboat would skim across the other side of the lake, causing my kayak to wobble on the waves the motorboat created. I never capsized, but I struggled to stay upright. The waves rippled across the water, and the children playing on the shore squealed as the waves lapped their feet.
Trauma causes similar ripple effects across the lake that is our community. Take, for example, a shooting. A child witness may have nightmares and become withdrawn. A teacher facing a classroom of students on edge from violence in their neighborhood may have difficulty connecting with the students. The public defender reviewing autopsy photos and medical records may develop nightmares.
There are still other folks who get smacked by the waves: the judges, court officers, and police officers who encounter violence and its effects regularly. Yes, at least one study suggests that even judges experience vicarious trauma (Piwowarczyk, Ignatius, et. al Secondary Trauma in Asylum Lawyers, 14-5 Bender's Immigr. Bull. 1 (2009) at 6). As if our jobs weren’t challenging enough, we have to figure out how to advocate for our clients, considering the judge may suffer from compassion fatigue!
As the combined waves wash upon the shores of our agencies, they erode our organizational cultures. We bring our courtroom experiences back with us to our offices. After a day of lost suppression hearings, unpunished discovery violations, and court staff who refer to our clients as “The Bad Guys,” we grow angry and cynical. Struggling to remain professional all day on the record as we witness injustice, at the office we lash out against those closest to us: our co-workers. We may send unnecessarily sarcastic emails or make biting remarks about the futility of our work, unintentionally decreasing the morale of our colleagues.
Like anger and cynicism, the inability to think creatively is another trauma response that pops up at the individual level as well as at the organizational level. For example, sometimes when I'm approached by people in court who aren't my clients, I find myself saying reflexively , "No. I’m sorry. I can't. I just can't help you."
That knee jerk response says more than just that I’m creating a self-protective barrier or that my reserves of empathy and patience have been tapped. It also demonstrates that I just can’t imagine how I would help someone whose case isn’t assigned to me. It’s quicker to just say “no” than to take the time to figure out how to problem solve with a complete stranger.
That reflexive "no" also manifests itself at the institutional level in our organizations. We're too busy trying to get funding, hire new staff, and stay on top of our workloads to think about how to make life easier for the attorneys we do have.
At the individual and institutional levels, the trauma our clients experience ripples through workplaces, washing up all kinds of detritus on the shores of our offices.
I’ll talk more about how we can care for ourselves in the midst of our trauma and prepare ourselves to be more resilient in stressful situations in future blog posts. In the meantime, here are some resources available now for those of you who want to learn more (after you get back from your restorative kayaking trip, of course).
My previous posts have talked about the difference between vicarious trauma, secondary stress, and burnout and the value of identifying the emotions you’re feeling.
Trauma Stewardship by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk is a comprehensive guide to managing our responses to trauma for anyone who works in a helping profession.
Public Defense Zen is a place for public defenders, investigators, social workers and other in the field of public defense to share resources related to developing resilience and coping with the challenges of our work.
When Compassion Hurts: Burnout, Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Trauma in Pre-Natal and Early Childhood Service Providers. This guide, published by Best Start in Toronto, provides a clear overview of the effects of trauma on all service providers, not just those who work with young children.
Andrew Levin and Scott Greisberg, Vicarious Trauma in Attorneys, Pace Law Review, Vol. 24, Issue 1 (2003). An entire Law Review article dedicated to the subject! This article discusses the results of a survey of lawyers and social workers.