Vicarious trauma (VT) is ‘the negative transformation in the helper that results (across time) from empathic engagement with trauma survivors and their traumatic material, combined with a commitment or responsibility to help them’ (Pearlman and Caringi, 2009, 202-203). The greater the exposure to traumatic material, the greater the risk of vicarious trauma. People who work in services to which people with traumatic histories present seeking help, or who work with traumatic material are at particular risk. This includes but is not limited to people working in health, mental health, housing, law enforcement, legal, emergency services and family services.
Just as PTSD is perceived as a normal reaction to an abnormal event, VT can be understood as a normal reaction to the stressful experience of multiple exposure to traumatic material (McCann & Pearlman, 1990). According to Saakvitne et al. (2000) the most important element in trauma work is the attention paid to the experience and to the needs of the helper. No-one cannot meet the needs of clients when they are overriding their own.
Anyone working with people affected by trauma or with traumatic material can benefit for understanding more about vicarious trauma, how to recognise the risks early and manage them.