The Cost of Caring: Vicarious trauma for Interpreters

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mental health

Vicarious trauma can be described as the elephant in the room – we all know it exists, yet we refrain from talking about it.

Recently, we invited Dr Miranda Lai, accomplished translator and interpreter and Senior Lecturer in Interpreting and Translation at RMIT University, to lead a 2M Academy webinar on Interpreters’ mental health: vicarious trauma and secondary stress. Miranda utilises her extensive research to fiercely raise awareness about vicarious trauma in interpreters. Her comprehensive presentation opened our eyes to the underlying realities of interpreting work and inspired us to continue the conversation.

In this blog, you can expect to understand what vicarious trauma looks like, how to identify the signs of vicarious trauma and how to manage the impacts.

A brief history

Vicarious trauma was first discovered in first responders i.e., firefighters and police officers during the 1980s. Dr Lai explains that the term “secondary traumatisation” was first raised to describe the symptoms that first responders showed without having experienced the traumatic event themselves. From research conducted in the 1990s, psychotherapists emerged as sufferers of vicarious trauma as a result of treating victims of violence, child abuse and war. Listening to graphic descriptions of horrific events changed the way they felt about themselves, others, and the world around them.

Researchers, Karen Saakvitne and Laurie Anna Peralman defined the term in the early 1990s as a “pervasive effect on the identity, worldview, psychological needs, beliefs, and memory systems of therapists who treat trauma survivors”.

What is vicarious trauma?

Help professionals who continuously hear, see, and learn about people’s trauma may experience distressing changes to their personal life, health, and functioning. The absorption of someone else’s trauma is best described as vicarious trauma.

Although typically associated with help professionals, vicarious trauma can occur in anyone who is exposed to demanding interpersonal work or emotionally engaging clients. Studies have shown that almost all language interpreters experience feelings of burnout, secondary stress, and in some cases even vicarious trauma from repeated exposure to traumatic material and stories.

Dr Lai highlights that, from the limited literature on vicarious trauma and interpreters, incidence rates are low. However, that is not to say that we should not be aware of the signs and symptoms.

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet” 
Rachel Naomi Remen (1996)

Looking for the signs

As Dr Lai describes in the webinar, vicarious trauma is a spectrum where various conditions sit.; it can be as normal as empathetic stress to as distressing as vicarious trauma:

  • Empathetic stress: a natural response resulting from observing others going through a stressful situation.
  • Burnout: prolonged physical and psychological exhaustion relating to people’s work.
  • Compassion fatigue: emotional or physical exhaustion resulting in diminished ability to empathise or feel compassion for others.
  • Secondary traumatic stress: emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.

Vicarious trauma: negative transformation within a person resulting from emphatic engagement with the client’s trauma material due to:

  1. Repeated exposure to other people’s trauma
  2. Cumulative, builds up over time
  3. A significant change in world view (belief systems)

Signs of vicarious trauma can manifest in several forms, such as behavioural, psychological, emotional, cognitive, and work-related. Even still, it can be difficult for interpreters to notice themselves developing vicarious trauma. This is why it’s important to take protective measures to stop vicarious trauma in its tracks. Interpreters are naturally compassionate people, but this means having compassion for yourself is equally important. After all, you are less able to help others if you are yourself affected psychologically.

Dr Lai mentions that social stigmas and cultural factors can inhibit conversations around feelings of distress and vulnerability as they are sometimes perceived as undesirable in some cultures or to some individuals. However, one’s wellbeing and mental health is significantly more important than any possible judgement and she encourages interpreters to prioritise their own wellbeing.

The self-care wheel

It is drilled within interpreters to act impartially. They do well at it, but it’s impossible to also feel impartial. Sweeping invasive emotions and feelings under the rug are counterproductive to the quality of interpreters’ profession. Dr Lai refers to Olga Phoenix’s renowned self-care wheel as a powerful tool to keeping one’s wellness and quality of life in check.

The self-care approach includes six key elements:

Self care wheel

The self-care wheel can be used as a tool to boost and nourish one’s mental, emotional, and physical health. We know that interpreters face stressful environments and having concrete ways to mitigate feelings that may arise due to such environments is valuable to maintaining a positive and passionate approach to assignments. Practising self-care can help interpreters to focus on doing their best for the client while acknowledging and dealing with their own emotions. Dr Lai encourages interpreters to set goals for themselves for each self-care element. For example, maybe join the professional association where peers interact and provide moral support to each other, or you can set the goal of doing yoga twice a week. Over time, these goals will serve as reminders to be aware of and act on all self-care elements.

Be alert, not alarmed!

Dr Lai stresses that early detection is prevention when it comes to vicarious trauma. It starts with being aware of the signs of vicarious trauma and building a supportive environment around oneself. As an interpreter, it can be easy to take distressing material away from the workplace. Dr Lai suggests requesting a briefing and debriefing on-site to alleviate some of those distressing feelings. Similarly, interpreters can reach out to their interpreting agencies if they feel overwhelmed.

At 2M Language Services, we care for our Translators and Interpreters’ wellbeing. We recognise that if our Translators and Interpreters are not practising self-care, they cannot perform well in their profession. We are here to help and encourage reaching out if you are experiencing feelings of distress and symptoms of possible vicarious trauma.

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