I recently listened to this episode from the stellar Podcast Troublesome Terps. First of all, I highly recommend these gentlemen's Podcast; incidentally, I initially googled "Troubled Terps" to find their website and had to laugh at my typo due to the nature of what I'd like to post about today. These terps are in fact troublesome, but a far cry from troubled. Anyway.
I'd like to springboard off the Troublesome Terps' discussion on mental health and focus it in on community interpreting. I titled this post mental wellbeing (vs. health) so there's no confusion with the subject of mental health interpreting, something community interpreters do a lot of and hopefully the subject of a later post. When I say community interpreters, I mean public-service-type interpreters involved in medical, legal, or social service contexts.
Thankfully, the topic of mental health/wellbeing for interpreters is one that is starting to be addressed. There are workshops, continuing education, and research available on the topic of vicarious trauma for interpreters (e.g. this article in Psychology Today). I'll just echo what everyone else is already saying: this is important, and I encourage especially medical interpreters to take regular stock of their mental wellbeing in relation to their job. Gone are the days when you can be expected to simply grin and bear the more difficult things you experience on the daily; it's not good for your mind, body, soul, or spirit to simply bury it and move on.
Let me start by sharing a little about my past two years as a medical and social service interpreter in relation to this topic. Interpreting in psychiatric detention facilities, ERs, oncology clinics, ICUs, forensic interviews, and mental health counseling has exposed me to a myriad of situations I would never have anticipated encountering. Delivering bad news was and is the most difficult for me. Telling parents that their child will not survive cancer, or telling family members that their loved one will not wake up from a coma. These are undoubtedly the most gut-wrenching appointments. Then there's interviewing a child victim of abuse or rape, sitting beside a patient chained to the hospital bed because he just attacked the nurse, or interpreting the violent hallucinations of someone in a straightjacket at a mental health facility.
I quickly came to realize that if left unattended, the experience and memory of these appointments would fester in my psyche. At a later time, I would find myself uncharacteristically sad, angry, or agitated, without knowing why. Based on my experience, I would hazard a guess that medical interpreters are closer and more vulnerable to vicarious trauma than, say, court or conference interpreters. In many facilities, especially with long term patients, I have very much become part of the care team both practically and emotionally. I find that while professionalism is of course appropriate and important, complete emotional detachment from these situations is neither healthy for me the interpreter nor in the long-term care interests of hurting patients.
So what's my strategy to handle the psychological weight and effect of all this? It may seem obvious, but the number one thing for me is to talk about it. Even to this day I sometimes fight against this, hearing the broken-record lie in my head of "Tough it out; suck it up." The weight that falls from my shoulders when I say to a friend, "I had a difficult appointment today. Can I tell you about it?", is significant. My Christian faith comes into play here as well; we see many of the Psalms in the Holy Scriptures, in part, as an expression of a common human experience: "This is what's happening, and it sucks." I implement this same methodology in processing some of the situations I encounter on the job.
My encouragement to other community interpreters out there is to share and be honest about the difficult moments you interpret and experience at work. I'd love to hear other practical ideas that anyone else has to combat vicarious trauma. Thank you for stopping by my blog.