A qualitative study exploring the experience of vicarious trauma among female psychologists working with survivors of sexual violence in the Western Cape
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South Africa experiences one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. It is well-documented that therapists who work with trauma survivors are negatively affected by the trauma stories they hear from their clients. The negative consequence of being exposed to traumatic material on the therapists is known as Vicarious Trauma (VT). VT refers to clinicians’ negative emotional, cognitive and behavioural changes due to hearing stories of trauma from their clients. This study aimed to explore the experience of VT among female clinical/counselling psychologists who treat survivors of sexual violence in the Western Cape province of South Africa and the coping strategies they employ to counter VT symptoms. The interpretive phenomenological analytic (IPA) qualitative research method was used in this study with semi-structured interviews being scheduled for 15 female clinical/counselling psychologists. IPA was also employed as a means of data analysis. The results are consistent with existing research, with all participants in this study attesting to being negatively impacted by hearing trauma stories. A majority of psychologists reported negative emotional and psychological reactions from the work. PTSD symptoms were present in some of the participants, however, all felt that in the context of South Africa, hypervigilance should not be understood as maladaptive but rather a very adaptive and necessary tendency. Only one participant reported developing VT as a result of the work. All used different strategies for coping with the negative effects of their work with supervision being used the most by all participants. A majority of psychologists also attested to having gained renewed hope and positive growth through engaging with survivors of sexual violence.