Recognizing and overcoming vicarious trauma

As much as you would like it, you can’t expect to be everyone’s hero. The trauma a victim is experiencing is theirs to handle, not your burden to assume


For the last 22 years of my law enforcement career, I was a police officer in a medium-sized city of approximately 150,000 people. We had 120 sworn officers and enjoyed the perks of a fairly affluent suburb of my state’s capital city. Sunday mornings on patrol had their drawbacks, but they were generally great for breaking into the workday at a nice, slow pace.

Not every weekend was the same, of course, but one late summer morning in particular, I was caught off guard by a call about a man informing the police department he was going to kill himself.

Crisis call

We had two dispatchers working that morning: one handling the police calls and the other working fire and medical aid. The dispatcher taking the initial call was undoubtedly pushed off his chair by the caller’s jarring declaration. Who decides to take their own life, fully sober, at breakfast time on a weekend? Clearly, this was not starting off as a typical Sunday morning.

The distraught caller was a male in his late thirties who lived in one of the oldest parts of the city. The houses were small and had once held workers for the bustling railroad industry. The dispatcher did a fantastic job talking to the man and collecting needed information, while occasionally muting his own microphone to relay information to officers as well as the second dispatcher. He also communicated the need for fire units and medics to stage.

As I rushed toward the caller’s address, the man went on to talk about his plan. Several years earlier, he had been in an accident that left him confined to a wheelchair. He didn’t feel he could continue living if he couldn’t experience life the way it had been before. The dispatcher struggled to keep the caller on the line while giving updates to myself and my sergeant – the closest units, but not close enough to instantly arrive on scene. The dispatcher told the caller officers were nearby and wanted to help him, to talk out his feelings … if he could just hang on a few more minutes.

Scrambling for help

The man was obviously experiencing great personal grief. He described to the sympathetic dispatcher how he had recently lost his only remaining parent. That parent had been instrumental in both providing financial stability for the caller and helping him with his daily activities, including transportation and medical needs. The dispatcher patiently explained the various public assistance options available to him, searching the web for the agencies the caller could contact the following Monday. If he could just refrain from hurting himself for one more day, things could improve tomorrow.

The man on the phone talked about how he lived alone in a small, decrepit home in need of serious repair. He was unable to fix any of the issues himself, and he didn’t have the money to pay for the necessary projects, anyway. The dispatcher offered to ask around the police department. We had several gifted handymen, employees with various skills who might be willing to donate their time to help him. If he could just not do anything he couldn’t take back – for just a few more days – his community would come together to help solve his problems.

The point of no return

Right before I arrived, the caller revealed to the dispatcher what had ultimately become the final straw: the prospect of a lifetime in a wheelchair. Sitting in the same position all day was hard on his spine and organs. His kidneys were showing signs of failure and dialysis was the predictable next step. It was only a temporary measure against what would eventually take his life. The dispatcher pleaded with the man. There was always hope if he could just hold out for it. Could he please hold on for another day?

The dispatcher was still relaying bits and pieces of the man’s story as my sergeant and I arrived on scene. The caller told the dispatcher he was in the far back bedroom with his father’s gun. He warned us not to enter his home. Just as the dispatcher repeated the man’s threat over the radio, a single gunshot pierced the bedroom wall and whizzed right past my sergeant, thankfully leaving her untouched.

When we were able to enter and search the residence, we found the caller deceased, with one bullet wound to the head. The usual protocol took over and we carried on managing the aftermath. Suicide is never an easy call. However, the units on scene could see the man’s home, his sad living conditions. When the medical team finally carried his body away, we felt a sense of finality as well as grief and pity for the man.

Signs of vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma is often experienced by caregivers and first responders who get to know victims and their circumstances. Those who work in public safety or the medical field at all levels are especially prone to this type of trauma because they regularly engage with people who’ve had harrowing experiences. As we try to help – or even save – people in distress, we get to know them and their stories. Even for a relatively short period of time, we can develop deep empathy as we relate to people’s struggles in ways that stay with us long after the call is completed.

Many times, we move on to handle the next emergency or report without fully recovering from the emotions we absorb from the previous call. Anger and sadness, combined with over-emotional responses to benign experiences, are common with first responders. We sometimes experience guilt or shame for being lucky enough to avoid the ordeals suffered by the victims we serve.

In an effort to soothe our inner turmoil, we will often become over-extended or too busy to think. This allows us to develop a tough coating of protective cynicism or detachment from the good things in our own lives. I believe we do this out of fear that those, too, will crumble in front of our eyes while we can do nothing but watch. It’s irrational, but also completely understandable.

Reducing the risk of vicarious trauma

The first step to handling vicarious trauma is to learn how to recognize when you’re falling victim to the stresses experienced by the people you serve. You can also lean on a peer support program if one is available. Your peers know exactly what you are experiencing and may be able to offer ideas for self-care that have helped them. Sometimes, the best thing they can do is just listen and express empathy for what you are going through.

Also, learn to be realistic about your role in helping others. As much as you would like it, you can’t expect to be everyone’s hero. The trauma a victim is experiencing is theirs to handle, not your burden to assume. You can offer the tools or resources they need to help them work through their own recovery, but in the end, it’s up to them to manage their own pain.

Another good strategy is to take time to develop yourself outside of the career you have chosen. There will always be another shift to fill and another paycheck to collect, but if those come with strings attached, then the price is not worth the pay. If you find the accumulated stress is causing you to lose sleep, eat or drink to excess, or otherwise self-medicate, it’s probably time to seek outside help.

Sometimes the best solution to vicarious trauma is distance. Use your vacations and spend your downtime doing something completely unrelated to work. Pursue hobbies, sports, or other activities that will take your mind off the trauma you see every day in your job. Positive experiences in other arenas can put you in a better frame of mind to shed the vicarious trauma and allow the healing to happen.

Finally, take the opportunity to learn. Read widely about vicarious trauma and the specific steps you can take to mitigate its residual effects. Expanding your knowledge on any topic will exercise your brain and get it out of the traumatic loop you might be experiencing.

The aftermath of a difficult shift

Toward the end of that Sunday shift, I got a message on my car computer to visit dispatch before going off duty. Once there, I met with a very anxious and obviously grieving dispatcher. When we’re working the street, it’s easy for us to forget how the calls are mostly left unresolved for the dispatcher. He was still on the phone when the gunshot nearly blew out his eardrum. He knew the paramedics had pronounced the caller deceased. But he didn’t know any further details.

The dispatcher had formed a bond with the caller. He wanted to hear about the house. Was it really in shambles? Were the caller’s living conditions really as difficult as he’d described them? He listened as I described to him the man’s home, his room and his apparent health challenges. He couldn’t help but acknowledge the bond of trauma that now linked him forever to the man who called out for help, the man he couldn’t stop from taking his own life.

I know this because my daughter married that dispatcher’s son. It has been over 15 years since that call, but when we see each other, that awful Sunday morning will sometimes enter the conversation. The dispatcher remembers the address, the time, the day, and the words the man spoke to him. He remembers the single gunshot and the silence afterward. His trauma may have been vicarious, but it was no less real.

NEXT: Smash the stigma: Building a culture that supports officer wellness 

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