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Mental Health Awareness Month and Recognizing Vicarious Trauma

May 2, 2024

Written By Kathryn Marsh, Prosecutor POV

May is mental health awareness month.  A time to recognize how mental health issues may impact your or a loved one’s life and educate yourself on available resources and ways you can help advocate for others. Vicarious or secondary trauma is a mental health issue that isn’t discussed a lot outside of trauma career fields.

“Vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services, and other allied professions, due to their continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence.”

When it comes to sexual assault, child abuse and intimate partner violence the law enforcement community (police officers, victim advocates, prosecutors, etc.) has gotten much better at recognizing the impact of trauma on the victim.  Specifically, how trauma may impact the brain which has changed how victim interviews and trauma informed investigations are conducted. However, while the law enforcement community has made great steps in understanding trauma on victims, there is still a lot of work to be done educating the community on vicarious trauma and its impact on those providing consistent services to victims.

Police officers and EMS are often the first person on the scene when a victim has experienced a violent, traumatic event. This may be a homicide, violent assault, sexual assault or physical child abuse. They witness the scene, the injuries and treat the traumatized victim, all while trying to remain composed and professional. This is then followed by interviewing victims and witnesses by both law enforcement, prosecutors and victim advocates. Prosecutors and law enforcement often comb through hours of video surveillance, photographs and child sexual abuse material, viewing the crimes over and over again, all while building a case.  And, there is always another case just waiting.  All of this has a direct impact on everyone involved.

Some of the most common symptoms caused by vicarious trauma include but are not limited to: burnout; feeling emotionally numb or withdrawn; fatigue; stress/anxiety; decreased resistance to illness; easily distracted; relationship problems; decreased participation in social activities or hobbies; increased irritability, aggressiveness or explosive violent outbursts; destructive coping or addictive behaviors; Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)/PTSD.

Police officers are often impacted by vicarious trauma, and this has a direct correlation on their health and life expectancy. Based on three separate studies it is estimated that between 7-19% of police officers have been diagnosed with PTSD. Between stress, PTSD, dangerous exposures on the job and the suicide the average life expectancy of a police officer is 21.9 years lower than the US population.

Research has also shown that social workers, mental health professionals and domestic violence advocates who specialize in child or sexual abuse experience STS, compassion fatigue and burnout at higher rates than similar professions who deal with different caseloads.

Additionally, another study based solely on CPS (child protective service) workers found that the longer CPS agents worked in the field the more exposure they had to trauma and the more likely they were to experience increased symptoms of STS to include panic attacks and OCD symptoms.

Comparing these studies to prosecutors of domestic violence cases, researchers found prosecutors experienced increased levels of burnout and vicarious trauma compared to mental health and social service workers with similar cases, mainly due to prosecutors carrying higher caseloads and their supervisors not having experience in identifying symptoms of vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma can occur after one specific case or after dealing with hundreds of cases and there is no weakness in experiencing vicarious trauma. It’s not something you should “suck up” nor is it just part of the job and should be ignored. The important thing is to recognize that vicarious trauma is real and can impact anyone who deals with traumatic cases day in and day out.

There are some things everyone can do to help reduce the impact of vicarious trauma on themselves and loved ones.

Monitor the basics to include proper sleep, eating and exercise. Some great sleep apps prior to bed are Headspace and Sleep Diary. Whenever possible, put down the phone or tablet before bed. 

Co-workers, family members and supervisors should all consider check-ins after difficult or prolonged cases and the encouragement of healthy social activities and hobbies.  If you would like to learn more about vicarious trauma and resources for dealing with vicarious trauma the Department of Justice has put together a vicarious trauma toolkit with over 500 resources that are broken down by career field.  This compendium of resources can be found at

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