Vulnerability can be defined as susceptibility to a negative outcome or the state of being unprotected from some type of danger or harmful experience. People who are vulnerable may experience feelings of anxiety, fear, and apprehension due to the risk they experience for some type of harm.
The concept of vulnerability is broad, as the term can be used in multiple contexts. In its most general sense, vulnerability may refer to the natural state of children, young animals, and others who cannot care for themselves. This vulnerability is often overcome with time.
All people experience some level of vulnerability to disaster or other types of trauma. In this context, vulnerability can be understood as the reduced capacity for a person to avoid, cope with, or recover from the impact of a hazard or other traumatic event. Some people who experience a trauma are able to effectively cope without experiencing negative repercussions, but others may be more susceptible to long-term effects such as posttraumatic stress and other mental health issues.
Factors such as age, economic status, discrimination, membership in a marginalized group, and lack of support may all increase a person’s vulnerability. Prior exposure to traumatic events is another factor that can increase one’s risk. Those who have a history of trauma are at increased risk for developing PTSD.
The term vulnerability can also be used to refer to someone’s risk of developing a health condition or mental health concern. For example, an individual with a family history of depression may be more likely to develop depression themselves than someone without a family history of depression. Factors that increase vulnerability in this context may include low socioeconomic status, the presence of a chronic health condition, being exposed to or displaced by war or conflict, and belonging to a minority group.
People may also have a biological vulnerability to a mental health issue. Bipolar, depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety have all been shown to have a biological component that may put people at increased risk.
How are Risk and Vulnerability Related?
The concepts of risk and vulnerability share some overlap, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Risk, however, more specifically refers to the likelihood of harmful or negative events occurring in a set time period, within a particular group. Vulnerability, then, is described by some as those factors increasing one’s risk. Many believe that vulnerability is not fixed and may be overcome, through resilience and other positive attributes, leading to a decreased level of risk.
Vulnerability in Medical and Mental Health Care
There is often a power differential between a person who seeks treatment and the provider of that treatment. The provider, generally a professional with some degree of authority, is typically thought to have more knowledge and expertise. Due to the existence of this power differential, those who are in treatment may feel vulnerable or as if they do not have the same amount of influence as the provider does.
Some might also feel like they are at risk of being exploited or coerced. Treatment providers have a responsibility to be aware of this power differential and to take steps to help the people they work with feel more empowered. In fact, providers have an ethical obligation to avoid harming or exploiting the individuals they serve.
People may also feel vulnerable when they go to therapy because they are sharing personal material with another individual. While being open about innermost thoughts and feelings may be frightening, it can also be highly beneficial in the context of a safe and supportive therapeutic relationship. Being vulnerable in therapy can lead to the healthy expression and processing of emotion, an increased sense of trust in relationships, and overall positive change.
Can Vulnerability Be a Strength?
Although the term vulnerability often has a negative connotation, the field of psychology is increasingly recognizing the value of being vulnerable. According to existentialism, vulnerability is part of the human condition. While being vulnerable indicates the possibility of being hurt, it also suggests one has an increased ability to live an authentic life.
Brené Brown, an author and researcher, has written much on the topic of vulnerability, and her work is widely known and highly regarded. According to Brown, vulnerability allows a person to deeply connect with others and experience emotions fully, and she believes one’s vulnerability signifies courage and strength rather than weakness.
- de Bertodano, H. (2012). Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/self-help/9536381/Brené-Brown-on-the-power-of-vulnerability.html
- Halligan, S.L., & Yehuda, R. (2000). Risk factors for PTSD. PTSD Research Quarterly, 11(3), 1-8.
- Jackson, J. (2009). A psychological perspective on vulnerability in the fear of crime. Retrieved from http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/21534/1/A_psychological_perspective_on_vulnerability_in_the_fear_of_crime_(LSERO_version).pdf
- Huffling, K. (2012). Risk and vulnerability. Retrieved from http://envirn.org/pg/pages/view/1345/risk-and-vulnerability
- Sarvimaki, A., & Stenbock-Hult, B. (2016, June 23). The meaning of vulnerability to older persons. Nursing Ethics, 23(4), 372-383.
- The stress-vulnerability model of co-occurring disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bhevolution.org/public/stress-vulnerability.page
- What is vulnerability? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ifrc.org/en/what-we-do/disaster-management/about-disasters/what-is-a-disaster/what-is-vulnerability
- Risks to mental health: An overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors. (2012, August 27). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mental_health/mhgap/risks_to_mental_health_EN_27_08_12.pdf
- Zur, O. (2009). Power in psychotherapy and counseling: Exploring the “inherent power differential” and related myths about therapists’ omnipotence and clients’ vulnerability. Independent Practitioner, 29(3), 160-164.
Last Updated: 08-5-2016
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