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April 14, 2015
by Dr. Dawn Crosson,Psy.D

Vicarious Trauma, the Media, and Police Brutality: When is enough, enough?

April 14, 2015 08:43 by Dr. Dawn Crosson,Psy.D

Sasha enters the waiting room of her psychologist trembling. Her heart is racing as she struggles to breathe. She has heart palpitations and the room is spinning. She feels as if she is about to die. The psychologist rushes out to console and comfort her. Sasha is having a panic attack. Why? Prior to her therapy appointment, she watched countless hours of a local news network covering the recent events centering police brutality. Sasha has a similar story. She was assaulted by police several years prior. As a result, she developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Media and Violence

In 2014, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner during police arrests took the media by storm. The deaths were caught on video by the cell phones of onlookers and went viral in a matter of minutes. People were interviewed across the nation about the incident. Many citizens expressed distrust for the legal system and were disturbed by the use of excessive force.  To worsen matters, the victims were a different ethnicity than the police officers. The controversy spun out of control. Violence increased in retaliation to the deaths.  The media coverage provided graphic details of the events providing the nation the opportunity to grieve daily with the families and to follow the court proceedings. However, did the media’s constant revisiting of the incidents via television, radio and social media also afford many to experience secondary trauma and/or to re-experience their own personal traumas? 

There is a growing amount and intensity of violence and trauma displayed on television and in movies. On a daily basis, some sort of violence is portrayed in the media. Most often, the media tends to magnify and reinforce violent acts and/or terrorism. The constant repetition of violence and traumatic events on cable news network provides 24 hours access for viewers.  The impact of this continual exposure on behavior has been argued over the years. Most recently, there has been focus on the viewing of sudden violent acts creating trauma or trauma-like symptoms in the viewing public. Cho et al 2003 suggested that trauma symptoms may be more increased for those who watch a significant amount of television news as the images are vivid and often evoke an emotional arousal.

Vicarious Trauma

Saakvitne, Pearlman et al (1996) defined Vicarious Trauma as:the transformation of the helper’s inner experience, resulting from responsibility for and empathic engagement with clients’ trauma material. As a result, there are significant changes in the therapist’s or trauma worker’s affect and responses that impact their outlook on life and their interactions with clients and co-workers.  While the term Vicarious Trauma often refers to mental health professionals, the experience has expanded to include others. Evidence from research suggests that people can experience post-traumatic stress symptoms following indirect exposure to traumatic events. Much of the research evolved from the United States after the 911 tragedy. Traumatic stress symptoms were found in those serving on jury duty and in adolescents distant from the 911 sites in New York. Similarly, college students reported an increase in anxiety regarding terrorism in the workplace following the 911 attacks. Overall, the definition of Vicarious Trauma has expanded to include the communal experience after natural disasters and/or large traumatic events in which populations are collectively affected.

Vicarious Trauma, Media Violence and Mental Health

Can Vicarious Trauma and Media Violence affect the millions of people that suffer from mental health disorders? As mentioned previously, the limited research has supported that many people outside of a traumatic events experience trauma symptoms similar to those that experienced the trauma directly. Hilton (1997) in her case report of two elderly WWII veterans reported that media coverage of the 50 year anniversary of WWII triggered the emergence of PTSD symptoms in both subjects.  Why would the men view the television programs if they were traumatized by the event? While avoidance of reminders of trauma is associated with the PTSD diagnosis, Hilton noted that it is possible that the men utilized denial as a coping mechanism and hadn’t fully accepted that they were indeed traumatized by WWII. Therefore, watching the television programs would be merely historical to them.

Given the research, it appears that continued exposure to media violence can evoke trauma symptoms and exacerbate anxiety and existing trauma symptoms. The continual viewing of vivid images of violence may cause clients to relive their own personal trauma. The recent televising of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner may pose challenges for mental health professionals that serve clients that are in tune and engaged in following the events. While the societal and political impact of such situations is clear and it is understandable that people want to be informed, when is enough, enough? How do we as mental health professionals address the impact of media violence in therapy when it is so readily and easily available?

Treatment Implications

In lieu of the research, mental health professionals may want to consider media events when treating clients with a history of trauma. Clinicians may benefit from assessing the amount of exposure the client has to the media and the types of programs that are viewed. Techniques to assist clients in identifying triggers associated with media coverage of violence may be useful. Psychoeducation about vicarious trauma and the possible impact on mental health disorders are also options to be considered in treatment.  The bottom line: Although there may be some gain in being informed on current events that include violence in the nation, there is a difference between being up-to-date and being saturated with information. Clients may profit from understanding that the saturation of media violence can aggravate traumatic symptoms. The question is posed again, when is enough, enough?


Cho J., Boyle, M., Keum, H., Shevy, M., McLeod, D., Shah, D. & Pan, Z. (2003) Media, Terrorism, and Emotionality: Emotional Differences in Media Content and Public Reactions to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media Volume 47, Issue 3, 2003 pages 309-327

Hilton, C. (1997) Media Triggers of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder 50 years after the Second World War. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Volume 12, Issue 8, 862–867

Saakvitne, K.W., Pearlman, L.A. & The Staff of the Traumatic Stress Institute/Center for Adult & Adolescent Psychotherapy (1996) Transforming the pain: A workbook on Vicarious Traumatization. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 85

About the Author

Dr. Dawn Crosson Dr. Dawn Crosson, Psy.D

While there are a variety of places that offer psychological services, many of these services use a "one size fit all " approach to treatment. Dr. Dawn Crosson provides quality services that are tailored to meet the need of the individual.

Dr. Dawn Crosson has a clinical practice in Harrisburg, PA

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