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Digital Forensics

Vicarious Trauma: The Hidden Cost of Digital Forensic Investigations

April 2, 2024

This article first appeared in eForensics Magazine, vol. 10, issue no. 5, in May 2022. Exterro is reprinting it here to further spread the message about the importance of protecting the mental health of digital forensic investigators. Justin Tolman, Exterro FTK Product Evangelist, is the author of the article and served as a computer forensic investigator for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Around 2015, I was working as a digital forensic investigator for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. I was analyzing computers seized as evidence in criminal investigations, helping bring criminals to justice, exonerate the innocent, and help victims of crimes find answers and closure for what they had been through. There’s no two ways about it. The work was difficult. I wasn’t just exposed to images and evidence of crimes that no one wants to think about—images of abuse, violence, crimes against children—I had to examine and document them for use in investigations and prosecutions.

I couldn’t talk about the challenges of the work at home. It would be a violation of the confidentiality of the work, but more importantly, I didn’t want to subject my family to the sorts of things I was seeing on a daily basis. It was only natural that I needed to find ways to unwind that spared them that difficulty. Mine was video games. Over time, I ended up playing video games almost as much as I was working, up to 40 hours a week. Spending 80 or more hours a week in front of the computer wasn’t good for me or my relationship with my family.

I wasn’t fully aware of it then, but I was coping with vicarious trauma. In a recent podcast I recorded for FTK Over the Air, I had an opportunity to speak with Cindy Kuhr, LSW, M. Ed., RASS, CCR, who serves as the Victim Specialist/Consultant for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Co-Founder of the Ohio Crisis Response Team, about vicarious trauma and its effects on digital forensics investigators.

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma, also known as second-hand trauma, occurs when a person empathetically engages with victims of traumatic experiences. While the term and phenomenon was first identified in therapists, forensic investigators also experience vicarious trauma. People experiencing vicarious trauma undergo symptoms just like the primary victims of trauma, with their brains literally rewiring themselves in attempts to suppress, internalize, or protect themselves from traumatic imagery related to crimes like child abuse, torture, assault, and other forms of violence.

In investigators, vicarious trauma can arise over time, from repeated exposure to evidence from traumatic crimes, or after a discrete event, because of a specific characteristic of a crime being investigated (such as having a victim who resembles a loved one or a particularly troubling crime). “The brain, viewing or working a traumatic case, records the images,” Kuhr explained. “Then an event that resembles that trauma triggers the individual to experience the trauma all over again.”

How to Try to Avoid Vicarious Trauma

Not every forensic investigator will experience vicarious trauma, but it is a possibility that all investigators should be aware of. Awareness allows investigators to take steps to help them maintain a healthy separation between their work and the rest of their life—including importantly their mental health. Investigators can and should take steps both in their personal lives and at work to maintain their physical and mental health.

Outside of work, take proactive steps to protect your physical and mental well-being.

  • Transition mindfully from work to home. Try not to bring stresses home. Use the commute, or a walk, or some other ritual to reinforce the boundary.
  • Get physical exercise. Exercise releases endorphins, reducing stress and triggering a positive feeling in your body. A hobby that requires you to be physically active works great too.
  • Try meditation or breathing exercises. You can become more aware of your feelings and stresses in the moment and make conscious choices about how to act on them. They can help de-stress at work as well.
  • Plan for positive activities. If your hobbies include travel, or something you can’t do right away or easily, make plans. Anticipation can produce a positive mental state as well.

At work, investigators, management, and peers can help maintain a healthy environment.

  • Create a support network. You can’t vent about the work at home. Talk with your peers. Let them know you’re there to support them and that you appreciate their support.
  • Validate your and their experiences. Acknowledge the difficulties in the work, and recognize the sacrifices you and they make to get justice for victims.
  • Learn about vicarious trauma and resilience. Share what you’ve learned with your peers. Post resources so others can learn and recognize they’re not alone.
  • Take breaks. Cindy Kuhr talked about a rule of thumb for focused activities, every 20 minutes, take a break for at least 20 seconds, and focus on something else that brings you pleasure.
  • Make your environment comfortable. Create a work environment that’s physically (think ergonomics) and mentally (think family photos) pleasant.
  • Get counseling if you need it. Many law enforcement agencies have or refer to counselors and therapists familiar with the traumas officers experience. I can’t say it clearly enough: Take advantage of them if you need them!

Organizations like Project Vic in the United States and Project CAID (short for the Child Abuse Image Database) in the United Kingdom help protect investigators from over-exposure to traumatic media by creating libraries of hash sets of known child exploitation images and videos. With these hash sets, investigators using advanced digital forensic software can identify images and video of child exploitation based on these unique digital identifiers, reducing investigators’ exposure to traumatic material, rapidly identifying child victims of crimes, and helping to stop or slow the spread of confirmed contraband.

Signs of Vicarious Trauma

Unfortunately, knowing about vicarious trauma isn’t always going to be enough to prevent it. But the more investigators and law enforcement professionals that know about the risks, the better. You might recognize some of the signs in yourself or in a peer—and that’s an opportunity to reach out for help or to offer a helping hand. Some signs to watch for include:

  • Feelings of agitation or inability to “deal with things”
  • Lower tolerance or patience for others
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Trouble sleeping, insomnia, irritability
  • Withdrawal from peers, friends, or family
  • Excessive or risky behaviors, including gambling, drinking, or substance use/abuse
  • Sudden or dramatic changes in demeanor and overall moods

Remember, a lot of these signs are subtle, and might not be something that you (or your peer) would be consciously aware of. They might emerge over time or in reaction to a specific incident. I will admit I was lucky that my negative coping behavior—video games—is less dangerous than many, but it did have negative impacts on my life. It started out as a coping mechanism. I felt like it was allowing me to unwind and protect my family from the negative feelings I was having because of my work, but I was withdrawing from the people I loved most.

Habits that can be neutral or even positive in moderation can be a way to displace the trauma, but they become negative if they’re really just locking the trauma away inside your mind and not truly reckoning with it. If you see the signs of a struggle happening inside yourself, or in a peer or loved one, it’s a signal that they need to get help. Check in with them and ask them how they’re doing. Understand there are resources available—and if your department or agency doesn’t offer them, then step up and help management understand what they can do to support their investigators. Remember, if you see something, say something.

Find out more about vicarious trauma and resources for investigators from the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.

Justin Tolman is product evangelist for FTK® Forensic Toolkit at Exterro. After serving as a computer forensic investigator for Ohio BCI, Justin trained and taught law enforcement and private sector investigators how to effectively conduct digital forensic investigations for Syntricate, AccessData, and Exterro. Exterro FTK supports law enforcement professionals' health by minimizing exposure to traumatic media with integrations to Project Vic and Project CAID.

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