Keeping Legal Minds Intact: Mitigating Compassion Fatigue
By Linda Albert*, LCSW, CSAC
This is an excerpt of an article published in The Wisconsin Defender magazine, Winter/Spring 2009. It is reprinted with permission.
What is compassion fatigue?
There are several different terms often used to refer to the same phenomenon; to name a few: compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, second hand shock and secondary stress reaction. Compassion fatigue is defined as the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effects of being continually exposed to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity. It has been studied extensively in social workers, nurses, doctors and therapists who work with victims of trauma. Recently researchers have begun to examine the impact upon legal professionals including lawyers doing criminal law or family law and judges. Compassion fatigue involves a cluster of symptoms such as, but not limited to, sleep disturbance, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, a sense of futility or pessimism about people, lethargy, isolation and irritability. The development of compassion fatigue involves neurophysiology and is best addressed from both the neurobiological and the social psychological research and perspectives.
Who is most at risk?
Levin et al (2003) found that attorneys and judges who work in the field of criminal or family law are considered at higher risk of developing compassion fatigue compared to those who work in other areas of the law.