Things you didn’t learn in law school: Dealing with vicarious trauma and other issues

  • March 05, 2019

It’s common knowledge that lawyers suffer from disproportionately high rates of depression and addiction, while at the same time there’s the sense that they can’t really talk about what’s bothering them without breaching solicitor-client privilege, or raising questions about their own suitability for the job.

We blame it on various factors: the length and stress of the working day, and on the particular personalities lawyers tend to bring to the table. But for many lawyers the depression and addiction may also be a sign of vicarious trauma – lawyers traumatized by dealing with the traumatized, and by not always being able to help.

Vicarious trauma, also sometimes called compassion fatigue or secondary trauma, is a cumulative process, says Françoise Mathieu, co-executive director of TEND and a compassion fatigue specialist.

“Symptoms include difficulty concentrating, intrusive imagery, loss of hope, exhaustion and irritability,” Mathieu wrote in a 2007 paper, speaking about front-line service people such as nurses, police and social workers, but including anyone who deals with those affected by trauma. “It can lead to profound shifts in the way helpers view the world and their loved ones.”

Mathieu is one of the speakers at the CBA’s inaugural Health and Wellness Conference to be held April 6 in Ottawa, the first national conference of its kind specifically designed for members of the legal community. Her session, titled “Managing the Things We Can’t Unsee: Reducing the Impact of Secondary Trauma Exposure in the Legal Profession” is one of several workshops that will look at the toll the legal profession can take on a lawyer’s health – both the manifestations, such as addiction and mental health issues, and the path to wellness.

Another panel discussion, “A dangerous way to cope,” to be led by Dr. Raj Bhatla, chief of psychiatry at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, will look at the effects of cannabis on mental health, and also at the connection between opioid use disorder and mental health.

What makes lawyers happy, what effect younger generations are having on the way we talk about mental health, using techniques such as mindfulness, peer support and counselling along with clinical care to treat mental health issues, and best practices for the workplace will also be featured topics at the conference, which is being presented by CBA Wellness.

For more details about the sessions and how to register, go to the conference web page.