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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Lecona

Impacts of Secondary Trauma on Asylum Attorneys

Photo Credit: Dina Haynes

Photo Caption: Attorneys and volunteers trek through sewage and snake-infested brush to reach their posts at Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece.

In last month’s blog post we established that PTSD is an (ongoing) emotional response to a terrible event. But what may surprise some is that trauma can apply to more than just direct exposure to a terrible event. For some people, for example, witnessing a multi-vehicle accident on the news can have a similar psychological effect as that experienced by those in the car accident. This sort of indirect trauma is known as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS).

Unsurprisingly, the population most at-risk of developing STS are those who work with traumatized clients, such as psychologists, attorneys, EMTs, medical professionals, and social workers, to name just a few. People who regularly meet with those who have undergone trauma need to understand the impacts that secondary and vicarious trauma can have on their daily lives. Sometimes referred to as “compassion fatigue,” the symptoms of STS can be written off by professional in these fields as “just part of the job.” But if left untreated, STS can lead to burnout, sleep problems, weakened immune systems, substance abuse, and suicidality. It is of the utmost importance that people working with traumatized clients prioritize their own well-being just as much as they would their clients’. After all, burnout does not serve the cause. It drives down the percentage of represented asylum seekers, which drives down the percentage of cases granted asylum, and it weakens the overall quality of representation.

As part of Refugee Projects’ study on trauma, we are looking at the effects of STS in asylum attorneys. Professors Lindsay Harris and Hillary Mellinger produced a study on the topic in 2021 which surveyed the experiences of over 700 asylum attorneys in their paper titled “Asylum Attorney Burnout and Secondary Trauma.” Harris and Mellinger’s results showed extremely high levels of burnout and STS, particularly in female attorneys, attorneys of color, and solo practitioners.

As a matter of law, asylum seekers must prove that they have a well-founded fear of returning to their home countries. This means their attorneys must explore the fear and trauma that makes return an option that would lead to their persecution or death. Over and over again, day in and day out. To prepare for immigration court, asylum seekers must recount to their attorneys the trauma and suffering they faced in their home countries. Asylum attorneys may handle multiple cases at a time, and often work pro bono. This high-stress environment, as rewarding as it is when a client is granted asylum, is a recipe for burnout. To make matters worse, asylum attorneys have been increasingly targeted by regressive governments, harassed and even prosecuted for assisting their clients.

In Harris and Mellinger’s study, one respondent wrote “I have decided to quit law altogether. It’s impossible to deal with the financial crush of serving a low-income population AND cope with the secondary trauma. I’ve lost my appetite for the law altogether... I have no faith in justice or the law anymore.” The response was, sadly, representative of the sentiments expressed by all 700+ attorneys surveyed.

Harris and Mellinger implore law schools to implement courses and training on combating burnout and handling STS, something few laws schools currently provide. But law students deserve to know the truth of the fight, so that they may put their best foot forward whilst entering it.

Stay tuned to Refugee Projects in the coming months for more content and practical advice on combating burnout and regulating PTSD and STS.

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