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Silent witness

Silent witness

The nightmare of ‘secondary traumatic stress’



It has taken society a long time to recognise that those who witness the horrors inflicted on our most vulnerable citizens are affected by what they see and hear, writes Tony Bates.

In 2016, a British High Court judge cried during a hearing. Later that year, a second judge became tearful in similar circumstances.

Both had been listening to testimonies of unspeakable sexual violence. The popular press had a field day. The credibility and competence of both men were called into question. None of the media reportage bothered to ask why it had happened.

Silent witness

Silent witness

At the time, the Lord Chief Justice was Sir Thomas of Cwmigedd. Concerned for his colleagues and annoyed at the short-sightedness of the press, he issued a strong public statement: “Few people have any idea of the sheer depravity to which people can sink, and a judge often has material in front of him which cannot but distress people.”

He added as a note of caution: “The difficulty we face at the moment is that the rise in sexual offending is continuing.”

Darkness visible

In the family and criminal courts, judges, solicitors, barristers and Courts Service staff encounter the darker side of human nature. Our potential for cruelty and exploitation of the most vulnerable citizens is on display in graphic detail every day.

It has taken society a long time to recognise that those witnessing these horrors in the course of their daily work are affected by what they see and hear.

We have struggled to find language to describe this. Terms such as ‘compassion fatigue’, ‘burnout’, and ‘vicarious trauma’ have failed to capture the lived experience of shock and distress that exposure to these horrors can provoke.

Lately, the preferred language for how we are affected by witnessing the impact of trauma in the lives of others is ‘secondary traumatic stress’. Whatever words we use, what we’re talking about is the vulnerability of those who care about the suffering of others.

Trauma refers to what happens inside us when we experience a distressing event. When our feelings become intense, and when we can neither fight against what is happening nor escape, we freeze.

We lock the intense emotions that have been provoked in us into our muscles and tissues. And only when we feel safe are we able to release our pent-up shock and make sense of what has happened. 

In plain sight

But sometimes it’s not easy to acknowledge what we have experienced. We are left in a twilight zone where we can’t take it in, and we can’t ignore it. We can’t move on. We become frozen in time.

We do what we can to avoid thinking or talking about what has happened.

Our blocked emotions give rise to physical symptoms, feelings of anxiety, helplessness and anger, and unwanted intrusive thoughts. When these persist over time and compromise a person’s ability to function, we describe a person as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The term ‘secondary traumatic stress’ (STS) refers to the observation that people (such as family, friends, and human-services personnel) who come into continued close contact with trauma survivors may also become indirect victims of that trauma.

Charles Figley (1999) defined STS as “the natural, consequent behaviours and emotions resulting from knowledge about a traumatising event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatised or suffering person.”

Beyond guilt

In legal settings, when we listen to traumatic events being replayed in detail, we become a ‘witness’ to rape, child abuse, domestic violence, and death.

We collect bits and pieces of these accounts, which can leave us with pictures in our mind or intense feelings running through our body. It is normal to be affected by such experiences. It is not surprising that we feel outraged, horrified, shocked, saddened, or vulnerable.

STS includes symptoms that parallel those experienced by people who suffer the consequences of direct exposure to trauma – unwanted intrusive imagery about what has been witnessed, emotional numbing, attempts to avoid anything that might trigger memories of the event, and a constant feeling of being ‘on edge’.

Like PTSD, STS reactions can persist well beyond exposure to some horrific incident, and can compromise one’s ability to function. The term ‘secondary traumatic stress disorder’ (STSD) is used to refer to the situation where symptoms persist and interfere with one’s work, close relationships, and peace of mind.

A very important Irish survey conducted by barrister Jennifer Bulbulia (2019) – commissioned by the DPP because of concern for the wellbeing of her staff – revealed that almost 60% of staff in that department suffered from exposure to the distressing details of the cases they dealt with on a routine basis.

The most distressing cases were those involving graphic details of child abuse and road-traffic accidents, especially when they involved photographic and video evidence.

Nearly a fifth of the DPP staff were found to ‘frequently or very often’ use medicines or non-prescription medicines to cope with the stress of their jobs, while a similar proportion relied on alcohol.

Others reported trouble sleeping or experiencing a heightened degree of fear for their own children’s safety as a result of dealing with child sex-abuse cases.

Fewer than 5% of the 106 people who completed the survey had sought professional assistance. Fewer still had looked for any support from management in dealing with the emotional impact of their work.

In a lonely place

In 2016, my colleague Micheline Egan and I were invited by the Learning and Development Department in the Courts Service to run a series of one-day workshops to help staff understand and cope with STS.

These training days were run on a regular basis over three years, throughout Ireland, and were always fully subscribed. Participants were those who played a critical supportive role to the Courts Service.

One man described the many hours he had to spend in family courts listening to accounts of domestic violence where children were implicated.

He described himself as a “silent witness”, adding: “I am invisible in court settings. I sit quietly and listen to everything, but I can’t react. Some days, I take it all in my stride and I think it’s not affecting me. But then I go home, and when my head is on the pillow, everything hits me.”

Typical symptoms of STS that participants have reported include muscle pain, abdominal disturbances, sleep difficulties, ‘zoning out’ on the job, developing a fixed gaze that draws comments from co-workers, difficulty absorbing new information, and self-medicating (food and alcohol).

The most common reaction was to feel ‘ashamed’ for reacting as they did. Many kept their problems a secret for fear of being seen as ‘weak’.

One of our own

Similar to the findings of Jennifer Bulbulia’s research, we encountered particular distress in parents who had listened to testimony of sexual abuse and violence to children who were the same age as their own.

Previous experience of issues that emerge in the courts also make a person more vulnerable. One woman working in the Family Court described how “every day I’m in there watching children who’ve been abused, it triggers me”.

People can and do recover from the harmful effects of trauma, whether experienced directly or indirectly (through hearing or reading evidence). What enables this to happen is being able to acknowledge what has happened, and how distressing it has been for them.

When people feel heard and experience the support of colleagues and friends, they can make sense of what has happened, feel compassion for all concerned – including themselves – and move on with their lives.

Recovery does not mean that we forget what has happened, or that we don’t have strong emotions about abuses we have witnessed. But we accept that really bad things happen, and we channel the energy of our empathy and outrage in whatever way we can.

STS can become a problem where a person is unable – or not allowed – to acknowledge their distress in response to work-related atrocities that they witness. For such a person, getting back to business as usual may require that that they shut down what they feel and try hard not to think about the images they’ve been left with.

When that person shuts down painful feelings and memories, they find it hard to be present with others. They may appear withdrawn. Their close relationships may become troubled. Unprocessed emotional distress also compromises their immune system. People are more prone to illness, and they develop physical symptoms that they often assume are unrelated.

A time to heal

Our workshops with the Courts Service met with genuine appreciation that the unique stresses they experienced on the job were being recognised. Sharing personal reactions to painful exposures in the courts ‘normalised’ them and created solidarity between staff members.

Senior staff members proved to be an invaluable resource for junior staff. They freely shared coping strategies that they had refined over many years. Building their resilience was as important as debriefing.

Factors promoting resilience include the ability to acknowledge the gravity of what is encountered, knowing how to take care of oneself in the aftermath of shock, and having access to real relationships where we can reflect safely on what we’ve experienced.

The strongest message that participants in these training days left us with was the need to recognise that STS applies to most people who are exposed to traumatic experiences that come before the courts.

The likelihood of experiencing secondary trauma is increased when there is a strong personal identification with the victim. Until we recognise this, no organisation can begin to deal with it properly.

The resources people need are largely informal: sensitivity and checking-in by supervisors; opportunities to access informal mentoring from more experienced colleagues; education and training in how to manage distressing images, feelings and physical symptoms; and what responsible self-care means.

Certain staff may need access to professional therapeutic help, and this should be facilitated in a way that protects their privacy and dignity.

Never underestimate the silent witness. 

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can find support through LegalMind. LegalMind is an independent and confidential mental-health support available to solicitors and their dependants, 24 hours a day, and can be contacted at 1800 814 177. Find out more on www.lawsociety.ie/legalmind.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Dr Tony Bates is a clinical psychologist, adjunct professor of psychology, a writer and broadcaster