Crime takes heavy toll on legal minds
Lawyers are particularly at risk from mental health problems.
Lynnette Hoffman reports
March 01, 2008
SEAN Brown still remembers the details a decade on. From the horrific sequence of events right down to the specific type of bullets that were used; how many there were, where they went in, how long it took the victim to die.
Brown (not his real name) wasn't a witness, nor was he on the ground at the crime scene, but plenty of grisly stories have been embedded in his memory in 20-odd years as a senior crown prosecutor.
Brown has "seen a lot" over the span of his career, a career that has required him to immerse himself in the intricate circumstances of violent death and homicides, brutal rapes, war crimes, you name it. The sum total of all that, he says, is "not very healthy".
New research from Macquarie University, to be published in the international journal Traumatology, has found that criminal law work can have profoundly damaging psychological effects.
By and large, Brown has been rather fortunate in that regard. He has not suffered a debilitating depression, nor has he felt the need to seek professional assistance for mental health issues, or fallen into a pattern of abusing alcohol or drugs.
But that's not to say the work hasn't taken its toll. His dreams are sometimes affected, as are his relationships. "I tend to get moodier with my family and become more difficult to get on with at home," he says.
At 58, Brown has been married and divorced three times, and while it's difficult to blame one factor, he feels his work has played some sort of role in it all.
In the new study, researcher and senior clinical and forensic psychologist Lil Vrklevski -- herself a lawyer -- compared the mental health and wellbeing of 50 solicitors who work with traumatised clients, namely criminal defence lawyers and prosecutors, with that of 50 solicitors (conveyancers and academics) who work with non-traumatised clients.
The study found that criminal lawyers are nearly twice as likely to seek professional assistance to cope with work related distress: 36 per cent of the sample of criminal lawyers sought professional help for that reason, compared with just 20 per cent of the sample of other solicitors.
Likewise, criminal law solicitors are much more prone to developing depression, stress and vicarious trauma, where professionals who are indirectly exposed to trauma begin to take on some of the same symptoms as the person who actually experienced it, such as increased depression or anxiety.
When you read it and know what some go through without ever being involved in traumatic events, but touched by them after the fact, you may understand how PTSD can and does strike combat forces.