How Interpreters Can Prevent Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, is a well-known occupational hazard among workers in helping professions. Although it’s typically associated with counselors and therapists, rescue workers, police officers, healthcare workers, and legal professionals are all considered at risk. Yet interpreters are often overlooked when it comes to evaluating the effects of vicarious trauma. That means they may have more trouble finding the support and resources they need to address it.

In this article, we delve into what causes vicarious trauma, why interpreters are at risk, and how to prevent it.

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a type of mental trauma that can occur when someone is indirectly exposed to a traumatic event through a first-hand account. A few common signs include:

  • Constant fatigue
  • Hypersensitivity to emotionally charged material.
  • Intrusive thoughts and imagery related to traumatic events.
  • Engaging in behaviors to escape (overeating, drinking alcohol, shopping, etc.)

Anyone who has a close relationship with someone who has been traumatized can experience vicarious trauma. However, people who work in helping professions are at a greater risk due to their repeated exposure to traumatic stories.

Why Interpreters Are at Risk

Unlike other professionals, interpreters are tasked with restating the facts as closely as possible in another language. And that includes speaking in first person. For example, if someone is reporting a robbery, the interpreter would say, “I was robbed” instead of saying “She was robbed.” This can inadvertently put an interpreter into the mindset of the victim.

Legal and medical interpreters are at a higher risk of experiencing vicarious trauma because they need to recount stories from refugees, victims of crimes, and medical patients.

How to Prevent Vicarious Trauma

While it’s not always possible to prevent it, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. These include:

  • Scheduling time for regular self-care.
  • Balancing the types of assignments, you take on to avoid burnout.
  • Speaking with a therapist

Undergoing training to learn interpreter-specific techniques can also be beneficial, which is why we’ve included a list of resources that may help.

Resources for Interpreters

American Sign Language (ASL):

Medical Interpreting

Legal Interpreting

Have any other recommendations? Let us know in the comments!