In Summary
  • Counsellors may fall victim to vicarious trauma after hearing gory details of a patient’s traumatic events.
  • It is easy to confuse this with burnout, another form of work-related stress

The task of helping people restructure, reframe and cope with traumatic events in their lives in an environment free of stigma is one that mental health professionals shoulder selflessly.

Patients are often required to be as transparent as possible as they narrate what troubles them in order to get adequate help and accurate diagnoses.

Though this work is voluntary, counsellors may fall victim to vicarious trauma after interacting with the often-gory details of a patient’s traumatic event.

Vicarious trauma is the result of a professional’s interaction with the trauma of a client that manifests as a change in behaviour as well as their core belief system.

It is easy to confuse this with burnout, another form of work-related stress. However, while burnout is influenced by a variety of factors in the workplace, vicarious trauma stems directly from listening to trauma survivors narrating their pain and accumulates over a period.

This has earned it the alternative name ‘compassion fatigue’.

The condition affects those in other professions that involve interacting with traumatic material as well. Lawyers, the police and journalists see and hear things while in the field that can greatly alter their worldview.


The role that natural empathy plays, especially in the field of counselling psychology, is immense.

“Counsellors are trained to engage clients with empathic understanding while remaining objective and professional. However, they are also human and often get affected by the suffering of their clients. If this happens they should seek immediate supervision and therapy,” says Dr Joseph Omollo, a clinical psychologist.

“Vicarious trauma may arise from counsellor sympathising with the patient and thereby secondarily becoming symptomatic,” he adds.

For psychologists involved in humanitarian missions, offering aid to the severely traumatised and witnessing first-hand the atrocities meted out on them increases the risk of vicarious trauma.

“Working with victims of terrorism in Mogadishu had an impact on me,” says Nancy Nyambura, a psychologist with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), of an experience she had in her previous assignment.

“After listening to [stories of] a similar theme of invasion of security and stories of gunshots and bombings, it began affecting my sense of safety and security. I began having vivid dreams which were playing out some of the trauma that my clients had shared,” she adds. 

She also narrates how the experience made her sensitive to any sounds that remotely resembled gunshots despite never experiencing an attack of this kind, a symptom that lingered even after her return to Nairobi.

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