What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a term used to describe the potential mental health impacts for workers who are repeatedly responding to the trauma of others. This can happen in many types of workplaces, but particularly where the core business of the organisation is to offer support to clients who have directly suffered the impacts of trauma. Examples of these types of services include child protection, family violence, corrections, youth justice, and housing services, amongst others.

Vicarious Trauma is defined as "...the transformation or change in a helper’s inner experience as a result of responsibility for and empathic engagement with traumatised clients" (Saakvitne et al., 2000).

It can include symptoms normally associated with PTSD, however the defining feature of Vicarious Trauma is the change in thoughts and beliefs about the world and oneself in response to the work. "…a long term alteration in cognitive schemas, or beliefs, expectations and assumptions about self and others" (Mcann and Pearlman, 1990).

Closely related concepts are 'moral injury' (Steel, 2019) and 'spiritual pain' (Reynolds, 2011). These ideas invite us to shift our focus from the 'psychological' cumulative impact of exposure to repeated, multiple accounts of individual suffering of clients; to the broader context of social injustice and entrenched inequalities in which workers attempt to 'make a difference'.

The VTPAT project is funded to work from a Primary Prevention perspective. This aims to remove or reduce the risks before psychological harm is caused and target the sources of work-related stress. Accordingly, the focus of the VTPAT is organisational level change rather than strategies targeted to the individual.

Definitions from the Field

We have been asking workers in the pilot sites to share their definitions or ideas about vicarious trauma. We will continue to add to this as the project progresses so that you can see what other workers involved in the project are thinking.