Individuals who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, and murder often find themselves in legal proceedings. The attorneys who work with these victims and perpetrators spend months immersed in the intimate details of the traumatic events. Just as the victims can suffer with depression, anxiety, stress, fear, and posttraumatic stress (PTSD) as a result of the trauma, so can the attorneys who work with them. It has been well documented that first responders such as firefighters and police officers, who are exposed to multiple traumas over the course of their careers, are at increased risk for negative psychological outcomes, and it is believed that the same is true for attorneys and legal professionals whose job it is to help victims. But until recently, little research has been devoted to understanding this dynamic.
Andrew Levin of the Department of Psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University sought to explore this issue further. As a follow-up to a previous study, Levin and his colleagues examined the trajectory of PTSD, depression, and overall functionality of 107 public defense attorneys over the period of 10 months. The study looked at the volume of traumatic cases worked on by the attorneys, the number of hours worked, and the psychological symptoms as they changed from month 1 to month 10.
Levin found that all of the attorneys maintained their level of increased stress over the 10-month period. Additionally, the number of attorneys who met clinical levels of impairment for depression, PTSD, and functionality did not decrease. The findings did show that the attorneys decreased the hours they worked from time one to time two. This could be due to their increased awareness of the negative effects of trauma exposure or could be a result of the symptoms they experienced. Overall, this study demonstrates the significant psychological risk to legal professionals who work with trauma clients, whether they were victims or perpetrators of the trauma. The results highlight the need for addressing this issue that affects professionals working with this segment of the population. Levin added, “These findings underscore the central role of exposure to trauma-exposed clients in predicting mental health outcomes and emphasize the need to support attorneys by managing the intensity of exposure as well as addressing emerging symptoms.”
Levin, A., Besser, A., Albert, L., Smith, D., Neria, Y. (2012). The effect of attorneys’ work with trauma-exposed clients on PTSD symptoms, depression, and functional impairment: A cross-lagged longitudinal study. Law and Human Behavior. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/h0093993
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