• Scott R. Mote, Esq.

Judges and secondary traumatic stress: What to do about it

We have heard about the dangers of mental illness for attorneys, but now it is time to shed light on judges. How does daily life as a judge affect his or her mental health?

Judges in domestic and/or criminal court witness the uglier side of life on a daily basis. They see murder weapons, rape victims, photos of mangled people who were injured or killed. They witness domestic violence, children who want to be with their parents but cannot because their parents made bad choices, victims of traffic accidents, nasty divorces, the list goes on. Judges are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events that have affected other people. Being exposed to this type of imagery can cause what some refer to as secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or indirect trauma.

Judges also face stress outside of the courtroom. Because a judge’s job is a public position and he or she is held at an elevated status, the judge has to remain neutral and professional at all times, which could lead to isolation and less personal support from colleagues. This leads to more stress.

The danger of stress is that some judges might not recognize the symptoms and some might fear the inappropriate stigma that comes with mental health disorders, which means they are less likely to get proper treatment. It is a judge’s job to provide competent guidance to the public, but an undiagnosed mental disorder could affect the way he or she decides a case. It is important that judges seek help if they experience any of the following signs of secondary trauma:


  • Constantly tired, to the point of exhaustion;

  • Lack of sleep;

  • Anger;

  • Irritability;

  • Guilt;

  • Hopelessness;

  • Losing faith in humanity;

  • Recurring thoughts and/or dreams about traumatic events.

If you or a judge you know is suffering from compassion fatigue, stress or secondary trauma, here are some things you can do:

Set and keep boundaries

Let your work stay at the office. Make a commitment to refrain from working or thinking about work when you are off the clock. When you are home, focus on your family, your hobbies, your pets--the things that make you happy.

Laugh

Laughter really is the best medicine. Just try it once in awhile. Think of something funny, and you will notice a smile start to form, then a giggle, then a laugh. Write it down, share it with someone or keep it to yourself. Laughing releases feel-good chemicals in your body and will help you relieve stress.

Exercise

Exercise releases endorphins, which help you relieve stress and relax. It will also help you sleep better. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Take a walk around the office or on your lunch break, hit the gym before you go home, workout at home, do yoga--these all help you get your mind off of the disturbing part of your job.

Keep hobbies

What is the one thing you love to do? Is it taking pictures, listening to music, reading, visiting historical monuments, playing tennis, playing cards? Whatever it is, make sure you set aside time to do what you love. This takes your mind away from the trauma you witness, and it also makes you happier since you are spending your time on something that makes you feel good.

Find balance

How do people find balance? It’s different for everyone. For judges, it is especially challenging since you might be required to stay after hours at times. First, find the good in your job. As a judge, you are helping people get justice. This is an incredible honor and what many judges find as the most rewarding parts of their jobs. You are helping innocent people see criminals get reprimanded for the crimes they have committed. This is an enormous achievement and one you should be proud of.

As mentioned earlier, to keep balance, leave your work at the office. If you need to speak about the details of the case you are hearing, talk to a colleague. Don’t bring it home with you. It really helps to talk about what is bothering you and how you feel. This is not a weakness!

Always have something to look forward to. This could be as simple as a home-cooked meal to as grandeur as a European cruise. This helps you see that you have fun things planned in the future, and you will look forward to them to help you through your work day.

Call OLAP

The Ohio Legal Assistance Program confidentially helps judges learn how to cope with the disturbing images they see and hear on a frequent basis. OLAP will set you up with a treatment plan, and will work with you as long as you follow the recommended plan. Call OLAP at (800) 348-4343.

What next?

Having a reaction to or feelings about others’ traumas is a part of human nature, and judges should not feel as if they are weak because of it. The first step is recognizing that you are having a mental reaction to your job. Use these tips to help, and see how you feel. If you don’t feel any improvement, please seek the appropriate help.


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