Since the Fort Hood shooting I've been hearing and reading a lot in the media about 'compassion fatigue' and 'vicarious trauma'. I feel compelled to blog after reading yesterday's New York Times article on the topic, which I'm sure won't be the last.
The idea is that any mental health professional who spends their days listening to patients tell their stories of traumatic events will eventually end up having emotional difficulties from it as well. The other term for this is 'compassion fatigue', in other words losing the ability to empathize with others or becoming numb to trauma due to exposure to patients' traumatic stories. The Times article is careful to point out that vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue will not automatically lead one to become a killer.
Well, I'm relieved to hear that.
Over the years as both a forensic and correctional psychiatrist I've heard plenty of trauma-related stories. I've reviewed autopsy photos and crime scene photos and read police reports of violent offenses and watched videotapes of violent offenses. I've heard people talk about
their crimes and talked to victims of violent crimes (if they survived). People who have read my "What I Learned" posts know that the annual conference of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law regularly features presentations about serial murderers, psychotic killers, crime scene investigation techniques and other topics that can be a bit gruesome.
If all 1700 forensic psychiatrists in this country are exposed to this regularly that's a whole lot of vicarious trauma. It's good to know I won't automatically become a spree killer.
Frankly, I wasn't worried.