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Trauma aftermath

10 Sep 2020 / Wellbeing Print

Rise like a phoenix

It is beyond time that lawyers operating in the ostensibly black-and-white world of the law learned about the reality of trauma and its impacts – on both clients and themselves.

When I joined Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) four years ago, I was coming from a background of private practice and leadership of the legal rights group, Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC). I had always used a legal framework to analyse and solve problems and to advance solutions.

Shortly after I took up my new role, a solicitor who had previously been a FLAC volunteer contacted me, urging me to spread more widely what she had learned in her training about the impact of trauma – not just on clients, but also on solicitors themselves.

At the time, I didn’t fully understand the significance of her message. Now, through my work, and through the impact of COVID-19 on our whole society, I understand better her very valid message.

In the course of their work, solicitors need to hear graphic and disturbing accounts of coercion and abuse within families, relationships or workplaces – from those who are victims of crime, and those who commit it; or from those fleeing desperate situations in their home countries and seeking refuge here. What they are listening to are accounts of trauma, from traumatised people.

In the last few years, some legal professionals have begun to appreciate how important it is to understand trauma. An internal study in the DPP’s office in 2019 was reported as finding that some 60% of legal staff suffered medium to high levels of trauma due to the distressing nature of their work.

The Law Society has had a wellbeing programme in place for its solicitors for some years now to help people understand the importance of mental health and wellbeing.

Profound effect

Nonetheless, it has been hard for people who present as successful professionals – particularly those who operate by rigorous, objective legal analysis – to admit that exposure to traumatic incidents, whether singular, multiple or chronic, have had a profound effect on their lives.

That is, until COVID-19 struck. The pandemic brought not just disease, but also fear into our lives in a dramatic and definite way.

As restrictions ease and we become used to living with COVID, it is important that we do not forget the level of fear that was prevalent at the outset, and that may come again. For many, that fear brought sleepless nights, a sense of paralysis, a need to find safe spaces, a fear of strangers, a sense of losing control and, above all, anxiety.

In a COVID-19 Mental Health Study of 1,000 adults in Ireland carried out by psychologists in Maynooth University and Trinity College Dublin in mid-April 2020, it was found that:

  • More than 40% felt lonely,
  • Nearly 25% were experiencing clinically meaningful levels of depression, and 20% were experiencing anxiety and post-traumatic stress problems,
  • More women than men were experiencing clinically meaningful levels of loneliness, depression and anxiety, and
  • More men than women were experiencing clinically meaningful levels of post-traumatic stress problems.

This was a reflection of our world a few months ago. Those were normal reactions to fear. Yet frameworks to measure anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are not the normal frameworks for lawyers.

But they are real. If we fail to acknowledge their reality, we fail to understand many of our clients. We fail to understand our colleagues. And we fail to understand ourselves.

Client trauma

Let us look at clients first (referring to Kessler et al, Trauma and PTSD in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys). If it is true – and it is – that most people will suffer traumatic events in their life, it is also true that the impact of that trauma may vary widely. Studies suggest that a person’s age, their support structures, the number and variety of incidents, and the level of violence may all affect the impact.

What I now know – and what I had not learned before I joined DRCC – is that a person’s behaviour in the immediate aftermath of a very traumatic incident, such as sexual violence, can range from frozen to panicked, numb to angry, or laughter to tears.

Some people can appear calm and rational. Others may feel hyper-alert, be unable to eat or sleep, they may blame themselves for the event, have flashbacks to it, and experience confusion or helplessness.

In the longer-term, trauma may lead to physical, mental and emotional effects across several categories. Physical effects may include self-neglect, eating disorders, digestive problems, sleep disruption, and stress-related ill health.

Emotional impacts include over-reactions to any stimulus or a need to tightly control their environment, mood swings, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or suicidal thinking.

Cognitive impacts may mean they find it difficult to handle everyday tasks or have impaired memory or concentration. They may feel constantly exhausted. They may lose the ability to trust or sustain a relationship.

‘Irrational’ behaviour

The problem is that, very often, these behaviours are not correctly recognised as arising from trauma. Even if we do make the association, we may still dismiss the behaviour as ‘irrational’.

While An Garda Síochána have come a long way – indeed probably further than most in the justice system – their 2013 policy on sexual crime shows a common attitude to those presenting with the symptoms of trauma.

While they note the particular vulnerability of victims of such crime, they explain that the person may not be able to make the kind of ‘rational’ decisions that might be in their best interest.

It is common and very frustrating for clients in the criminal justice system, the asylum system, the family law courts – and wherever people in the aftermath of traumatic events intersect with the law – that legal rules and legal thinking will often regard their behaviour and responses as aberrant.

In fact, the deficit lies in the lack of comprehension within the legal system and among its officers, when they cannot take account of trauma. Legal training and legal practice need to quickly increase their comprehension of the impact of trauma. In failing to do so, many people already made vulnerable by their trauma are suffering further by being denied access to justice.

Vicarious trauma

And what about solicitors who see the clients who have suffered trauma? Whose job it is to listen to and meticulously note and clarify details of horrifying events and incidents?

In the same way that we can fail to associate the client’s behaviour with their trauma, we can also fail to identify the negative effects on the professionals who support them of reliving these traumatic accounts.

This so-called ‘secondary’ or ‘vicarious’ trauma can be, in many ways, similar to the trauma experienced by the client, and can often be cumulative. It can manifest in all the symptoms listed above for clients.

It is entirely possible to address both primary and secondary trauma, but first we need to accept that it can happen, so that we can recognise the signs and take appropriate steps. Some compassion and understanding goes a long way, especially when complemented by the many expert services that provide hope and healing.

Wider comprehension

It may be that COVID-19 will bring a wider comprehension of trauma, as so many of us will have seen the effects in our families, in our social circles, among our colleagues or on ourselves. Indeed, many people continue to suffer anxiety, depression and exhaustion, because that is what illness does to you – it causes you to suffer.

Suffering that is unseen or unacknowledged is not any less real, and may just need someone who knows where to look and what to look out for. We make suitable allowances for a client or colleague with a physical injury.

So, it is beyond time that lawyers operating in the ostensibly black-and-white world of the law learned about the reality of trauma and its impacts.

Failing to do so leaves a gap in our knowledge of how to manage ourselves and our work – and it goes against the interests of those accessing justice, our own interests, and the interests of our families, colleagues and friends. 

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is there for anyone affected by sexual violence, including those supporting others. You can call the national 24-hour helpline (1800 77 8888) for confidential, non-judgemental information and support. DRCC offers professional training to those working with victims of sexual violence, including on secondary trauma. More details and information, including resources, are available on the DRCC website, www.drcc.ie.

Noeline Blackwell
Noeline Blackwell is a solicitor and CEO at Dublin Rape Crisis Centre