Trauma and the Practice of Human Rights Law

By Brittni Tee

In the early weeks of my internship at the Yukon Human Rights Commission, I attended a seminar focused on strategies to prevent vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue in the workplace. With the exception of myself and my colleagues, the majority of people in attendance were social workers, addictions counsellors, and paramedics. As I listened to other attendees share stories about difficult situations that they had experienced at work, I remember feeling distinctly out of place. Prior to this workshop, the intersection between the practice of law and trauma had not been particularly apparent to me.  Yet, as my internship progressed, I quickly became grateful for the crash-course in trauma that this seminar had provided.

Most of my work with the Commission centers around responding to inquiries from members of the public.  Although the Commission will assist anyone who has a question about the Yukon Human Rights Act, the majority of inquiries I receive are from individuals who believe that their human rights have been violated. Unsurprisingly, conversations about these experiences are often emotionally fraught, both for myself and for the people that I am trying to help. After challenging days at the office, I sometimes find myself feeling drained, thinking about stories I heard at work while trying to relax at yoga or enjoy a drink with friends. Although I have only spent a few months at the Commission, it’s easy to imagine how the cumulative, long-term effect of this type of work could have negative mental health consequences.

The legal profession is somewhat notorious for embracing a competitive, “survival of the fittest” ethos which discourages acknowledging any sign of weakness. Unfortunately (and perhaps unsurprisingly), this culture has led to alarmingly high rates of addiction, depression and other mental health issues within the profession. Although these issues are beginning to be addressed from the perspective of improving work/life balance, the effects of trauma are less commonly discussed. In practice areas such as human rights law where trauma is regularly encountered in the workplace, this has negative repercussions for both practitioners and the people they are trying to help.

In simple terms, trauma is the psychological and emotional response to an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. It is often explained as our body’s response to an event perceived by our nervous system as significant threat, either to ourselves or others (often loved ones). In the field of human rights law, practitioners are also likely to encounter systemic or intergenerational trauma in communities that have been historically oppressed.  In many cases, the negative consequences of these experiences can persist across multiple generations.

While most people recognize that a traumatic event can create long-lasting emotional effects, many people underestimate the severe neurological impacts that trauma can have upon the brain. Research has shown that trauma can create long-term damage to the neurological pathways used for decision-making, resulting in overstimulated “fight, flight or freeze” responses. In addition to changing how a person interacts socially, this can also affect the ability to process thoughts and make good judgments. Taken together, the effects of trauma can significantly impact the way that individuals engage with the justice system and other elements of society.

In recent years, the concept of “trauma-informed practice” has become increasingly mainstream. Fundamentally, this approach focuses on acquiring a basic understanding of the psychological, neurological, biological, social and spiritual impact that trauma and violence can have on individuals seeking support. In particular, trauma-informed practice is centered on creating compassionate relationships built on respect, trust and safety. For practitioners, this means putting the choices of the people you are trying to help at the forefront of your practice, rather than trying to control or micromanage decisions. This is particularly important in human rights law, since individuals experiencing systemic discrimination can often develop a mistrust of authority figures and institutions. In these cases, providing hierarchical services which amplify existing power-dynamics may risk re-traumatizing those seeking assistance. In light of these considerations, trauma-informed practice emphasizes reducing power imbalances and approaching relationships from a position of equality.

In addition to understanding the impact that trauma can have upon individuals seeking assistance, it is also necessary to consider how repeated exposure to trauma can affect legal practitioners. Vicarious trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue are all incredibly common in the legal profession, particularly in practice areas such as human rights law. It is important for people working in these roles to keep an eye-out for signs which may indicate that their mental health may be suffering as a result of their work. Common recognizable signals of vicarious trauma and burnout include feelings such as sadness, anxiety, isolation, irritability, disturbed sleep, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Many practitioners also experience something called “compassion fatigue” which results in a lack of empathy and loss of faith in humanity.

Increasing trauma-awareness is an important first-step to preventing and treating vicarious trauma and burnout in the legal profession. Workplaces should also strive to build healthy work environments, which include scheduled breaks and opportunities for employees to “step-away” from work when they feel overwhelmed. On a personal level, there are a number of strategies which individuals can use to reduce the negative mental health repercussions of repeated exposure to trauma. These include exercising regularly, eating healthy, maintaining personal support systems, and generally maintaining a balanced lifestyle.

Yet, while these techniques may be helpful, systemic and institutional changes are also necessary to truly reduce the prevalence of these issues. As trauma scholar Vikki Reynolds has noted, “individualizing” solutions to vicarious trauma obscures the context of social injustice in which this work occurs.[1]  The cause of the harm experienced by people working in helping professions is not clients, but the endless struggle and frustration of working within the confines of an unjust systems.  Although self-care is an important element of preventing burnout and vicarious trauma, ultimately the solution to these problems requires a collective commitment to justice and social change.

My internship at the Human Rights Commission has been incredibly rewarding, both personally and professionally. While this summer has reinforced my longstanding aspiration to work in this field, I have also realized that human rights work presents unique challenges. For those interested in building a career working in the public interest, understanding trauma and its effects is crucial to building a successful and sustainable practice. Moving forward, the legal profession must work harder to educate students and practitioners about the intersections between trauma and the practice of law. Ultimately, this will improve both the mental wellness of practitioners and the quality of service that they are able to provide to the public.

[1]https://vikkireynoldsdotca.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/reynolds2011resistingburnoutwithjustice-doingdulwich.pdf

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