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It’s PTSD Awareness Month – Here’s What You Need to Know

June 23, 2021

June is PTSD Awareness Month and I believe it’s more crucial than ever for people in the legal profession to discuss its implications for our clients and even for ourselves. I’ve spoken before about the impacts of PTSD on foster children, 25% of whom suffer from the disorder. But what do lawyers need to know about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

I didn’t have a true understanding of PTSD or what it was until I started practicing law and listened to my clients emotionally describe the anxiety and dread they would feel when reliving an accident or injury that changed their lives. While PTSD used to be considered a disorder that exclusively impacted soldiers, we have lots of new research about how expansive PTSD really is. Nearly 30% of PTSD cases in the United States are due to sexual violence, and almost 40% of people who survive a motor vehicle accident develop it as well.

PTSD is a neurobiological injury that actually structurally impacts a person’s brain. We’re all vulnerable to developing it when we experience or witness something traumatic. Common symptoms that I’ve seen in my clients include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event as though it’s happening right now.
  • Nightmares and poor sleep.

These symptoms can dramatically impact a client’s life, and by extension, they can complicate your case as you seek justice for them. If you’re a lawyer working with a client who has PTSD, you should:

  • Read up on PTSD if you’re unfamiliar to help understand your client and clearly communicate with them.
  • Hire an expert who focuses on PTSD to testify. It’s crucial to explain to a jury how PTSD is a real mental health condition, not a matter of weakness or just “feeling bad.”

Working with clients who have PTSD can be an intense experience for attorneys as well. When you’re working with a sexual abuse victim or someone who was abused in foster care, you oftentimes hear a lot of intimate details of their trauma. Good lawyers will often try to “feel their client’s pain,” which can be helpful for the case – but it can also be very damaging and draining to the attorney. There used to be an old belief that “we’re lawyers, we can handle it,” but that isn’t always true.
It’s very important that you take time to regroup and recharge after working with a client who has suffered from trauma. A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Go for a run or a walk after a hard day or a deposition.
  • Do something silly and comforting, like playing with your dog or watching a comedy.
  • Make sure you feed yourself – listen to some opera, have a glass of wine, and cook a meal.
  • Relax and recharge after stressful moments.
  • If you find that you can’t sleep or are still upset and bothered after trying to regroup after a hard case, see a professional. Don’t hold in your anxiety and pain – seeing a therapist to work through your feelings is a badge of honor and will make you a better lawyer.
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