A more inclusive discussion on the impact of trauma on lawyers’ mental health is needed

There has been a growing acknowledgment of the prevalence of mental health issues in our profession, including our susceptibility to vicarious trauma, which comes as a result of the horrifying and disturbing cases to which many of us are routinely exposed.

Crystal Tomusiak

There has been a growing acknowledgment of the prevalence of mental health issues in our profession, including our susceptibility to  vicarious trauma, which comes as a result of the horrifying and disturbing cases to which many of us are routinely exposed.

Vicarious trauma can affect those of any background. As important as it is to recognize our collective vulnerability in this way,  more is needed for a truly inclusive and trauma-informed approach. In particular, we need to face the prevalence of trauma in our society and explicitly address the fact that many of us come to the practice of law having already experienced significant trauma that may shape how our mental health is impacted by the pressures of the profession.

Openly facing this fact is necessary to serve the objectives of supporting the mental health and well-being of lawyers and promoting inclusion and diversity in the profession.

First, to support lawyers’ mental health and wellness, we need to address the fact that traumatic experiences increase our vulnerability to various mental health issues, including but not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder. Just as we attempt to do for other mental health-related issues, we need to proactively remove the stigma that can prevent lawyers from reaching out for help in relation to their own experiences of trauma. When vicarious trauma is discussed without any acknowledgment of the fact that, given the prevalence of trauma in our society, many of us may have our own trauma histories, it can deepen the stigma that already exists and make it more difficult for people to share their stories (if they wish to) or seek help.

Too often, discussions about lawyers’ mental health suggest that we start out in this profession in a factory-fresh state without any significant pre-existing wounds or vulnerabilities. To remove the stigma and meaningfully address the varying ways in which we can be affected by the pressures of our difficult work, we need to ensure that discussions about vicarious trauma and mental health include a recognition of the different ways in which we may be affected depending on our own past experiences of trauma. There must also be a clear message that there is no shame in having such histories. This means not having discussions about trauma in a manner that fails to recognize that those who have personally been affected are almost certainly among us in significant numbers. It should be noted that other professions that routinely deal with traumatized clients already recognize the likelihood of personal trauma histories among their members; for example, the Trauma-Informed Practice Guide created for the British Columbia health-care sector.

Second, to give effect to our commitment to be inclusive and diverse, we must ensure that our discussions about lawyers’ mental health do not exclude those whose lives have been directly affected by trauma. In a general sense, being inclusive means ensuring that the mental health needs of lawyers with personal trauma histories are openly considered and meaningfully addressed. More specifically, the implications for equality, inclusion and diversity may be even more profound in view of the statistics demonstrating that women and marginalized populations — which already face a greater struggle for equality, inclusion and representation in the profession — are more likely to have been violently victimized. To be responsive to the needs of lawyers who may have a greater likelihood of personal and intergenerational trauma histories and to hold space for aspiring lawyers who may be currently struggling with the effects of trauma, we need to ensure that the message we are sending is compassionate, destigmatizing and inclusive. It is important to emphasize, however, that this is not just about protecting the vulnerable who are or aspire to be among us. It is also about enriching the profession by including the voices and perspectives of those who have survived the kinds of adversity that the clients and justice system participants and stakeholders whom we serve may also have endured. With personal histories of trauma come personal histories of resilience and depth of understanding, which can only enhance the ability of our profession to be responsive to the needs of traumatized people affected by our justice system. Diversity and inclusion in this sense mean recognizing and holding space for our unique skills and strengths as well as making allowances for our particular needs and vulnerabilities.

My argument is not intended to detract from other discussions about vicarious trauma. It is important that we recognize the ways in which all of us can be profoundly affected by the vicarious trauma to which we are exposed through our work even if we have never personally experienced a traumatic event. My point is simply that we must at the same time also recognize that many who have already directly experienced trauma are also among us with potentially unique needs, strengths and perspectives, which deserve to be considered and discussed. Moreover, given the highly personal nature of many traumatic experiences, and the fear of stigma that often accompanies mental health issues in general, we should not wait for courageous individuals to have to speak up one by one and say “me, too” before we address the issue.

Crystal Tomusiak is Crown counsel with the B.C. Prosecution Service, Criminal Appeals. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely her own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of the B.C. Prosecution Service.

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