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.
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):
- Shielding yourself from the perils of empathy: The case of sign language interpreters (Journal article)
- Vicarious Trauma Among Interpreters (Journal article)
- Vicarious Trauma & Professional Interpreters (Webinar)
- How Not to Hurt: Teaching Trainers About Vicarious Trauma and Interpreter Self-Care (Webinar: Free for NCIHC members; $30 for non-members)
- Breaking Silence: Interpreting for Victim Services (Training manual with an accompanying workbook and glossary)
- Vicarious Trauma in the Courts (NCSC list of resources)
- Relieving the Nightmares of Others (Journal article)
Have any other recommendations? Let us know in the comments!