Dealing with vicarious trauma: What law school did not teach me about working on cases of sexual violence

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To all my fellow lawyers out there, especially those working with victims of violence, I urge you to be aware of your emotions, and to take care of your mental health like you would take care of your physical health. This is the only way to sustain our work.

I am a law graduate, and three or four years ago, I started working with children who are victims of sexual abuse. When I started my work these cases, I told myself that these were just like any other case, where I have represent my clients and safeguard their interests. I did not think this through. I did not discuss this with anyone. I went into the work head on, without any preparation, except of course some readings on the law, which I thought made me well equipped to handle the work.

But after five years of having studied the law, twelve internships, and two years of litigation experience later, I was still not prepared. I had completely over-estimated my ability to handle these cases. When I began to reflect on what went wrong, I realised that the root of the problem partly lies in the education system of which I am a product.

There are a variety of courses for people who want to study the law in India. Some colleges offer multi-disciplinary courses. There are specialisations. There are super-specialisations. But nothing, I repeat, nothing in law colleges prepares one for working with victims of sexual violence.

Unlike courses such as social work and psychology where students are taught about empathy, boundaries, and self-care, we did not have a single paper on how to work on these issues. This may be a big part of why lawyers are known to have very low emotional quotient.

A lot of it can be associated with years of orientation towards ‘focusing on the facts’ with ‘rationality’ and being asked to be ‘devoid of emotions’. As lawyers, we often forget that we are working with the concerns of other human beings and that it isn’t so easy to do this work without feeling something about it. I was conditioned to make all of these mistakes.

At first, I thought everything was fine. Casework was growing. We had a multidisciplinary team and everyone was very competent, compassionate, and co-operative.

Fast forward six months, I was working on one of the most complicated cases I have ever worked on. A child with several mental health concerns had just testified. We had been working for months on this case and I was exhausted. I came home, took a shower, shut the door, switched off the light, and went to sleep. It was a weekend. I did not wake up for next two days. I could not. I did not eat much, I did not shower for two days, I did not meet or speak with anyone. I thought I was just exhausted, and I completely ignored the obvious signs that I felt seriously unwell. This was the beginning of my mental health going downhill.

Weeks later, I shared this with one of my lawyer friends, in passing. ‘Don’t put your heart into your cases, P’, he said. ‘Just treat them like any other case.’ By then, I had had to work on incest cases, gang-rape cases, cases involving toddlers as victims. I simply could not look at them as ‘mere cases’. They involved children who had been abused by people they should have been safe with. For me, it was nearly impossible to represent their interest, their experience, their point of view, and their expectations to the justice system if I just treated them as ‘cases’, or if I ‘kept my feelings aside’.

Meanwhile, I could see several changes in myself. I was more careful about my own safety, sometimes unreasonably so. Before entering my house, I would check behind doors, fearing that someone was hiding there. I checked door locks multiple times every night. For a month, I slept with the lights on, because every time I switched off the lights, I thought someone was in my room.

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I have a tendency of dreaming whatever I read. In this context it meant I would have nightmares about whatever I read in case chargesheets. It wasn’t just me — many colleagues at work also had case related nightmares. We’d all joke about it. We embraced it as part of our new life.

My partner pointed out that I needed therapy. I ignored him, thinking of myself as strong, competent and resilient. He urged me to take a break. ‘Nothing is more important to me than my cases’, I retorted. He, as politely as possible, pointed out that I was showing signs of burn out. ‘Are you doubting by capability?’, I snapped. Like I said, I over-estimated my ability. There was institutional support available at work, which I chose not to use. I felt that I should not share my emotions at work, that I should professional and rational.

The old lesson in rationality eventually became a curse. It took me another year and a half to realise that I was traumatised. Later, I learned that what I was experiencing is called vicarious trauma, which is apparently very common among people who continuously empathise with trauma victims in the course of working with them.

This is why they are advised to practice self-care, which — as I understand it — involves being in touch with one’s emotional and seeking professional help in order to cope. It also involves nurturing one’s hobbies, taking breaks, and doing anything that’ll take their mind off work for a few hours every week, if not every day. Because of my training, I was not doing any of this.

Fast forward three years, and I had stopped feeling. I was numb. In clinical terms, I was experiencing ‘compassion fatigue’. My mind felt like a sponge which has soaked water to its full capacity and cannot soak any more until you fully squeeze it out.

This worried my partner, and the few friends who knew about it. And then one day the inevitable happened. I burst into tears at work. That day I knew that, for the sake of the children, for sake of the organisation, and for my own sake, I had to quit. I needed healing. I needed to finally start practicing self-care.

To this day, I feel guilty for prioritising myself over the children. But I have come to terms with my decision. I miss my workplace, I miss my team, and, more importantly, I miss working with children. Quitting was one of the hardest decisions of my life. However, it was also necessary at that time. I realised that cannot do justice to my work, and I cannot represent my clients zealously and passionately if I am not healthy — physically, and mentally.

In this one year break from casework, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on how to improve myself. I am now more aware of my limitations. I am aware of some of the mistakes that I have made. I am more aware of ways to prevent burn out. I know I will be a better advocate when I start casework again.

However, I wish our education system had at least one subject addressing the concerns of burn out, compassion fatigue, and self-care. Our jobs are challenging and emotionally draining. They are ten times more challenging when the clients are victims of crime and abuse. I have learned the hard way that while it is very important to be factual and rational, one cannot simply ignore the importance of one’s own mental health and well-being either.

To all my fellow lawyers out there, especially those working with victims of violence, I urge you to be aware of your emotions, and to take care of your mental health like you would take care of your physical health. This is the only way to sustain our work.

Priyangee Guha is a lawyer who works on issues related to gender based violence.


Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal