In summary

The most traumatized people in a courtroom are the victims, survivors and bystanders who witnessed a crime. But judges experience secondary trauma as people retell their experiences. A Sacramento area judge with anxiety argues the importance of seeking out mental health care.

Guest Commentary written by

Tim Fall

Tim Fall

Tim Fall is a judge serving on the Yolo County Superior Court bench. He is the author of “Running for Judge: Campaigning on the Trail of Despair, Deliverance, and Overwhelming Success.”

Judges have the third-most stressful job in the country. There’s a reason for that, and it’s got a lot to do with a relatively unknown aspect of the job: the secondary (or bystander) trauma trial court judges experience daily. 

Therapists and physicians I’ve spoken to say this is one of the major hazards of the job. If you’re wondering why I have spoken to therapists and physicians about judges and stress, well it’s because I experience bystander trauma firsthand. I’ve also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that multiplies the stress of being a judge.

Consider how secondary trauma might come up for a first responder. Let’s say an EMT arrives at the scene of an accident where someone was injured, then taken to the hospital by ambulance. The person most traumatized by the accident is the injured person, of course, but the first responders experience a form of trauma as well.

Judges face secondary trauma in a related fashion. Imagine the cases that are set for hearing each day. The most traumatized people in the courtroom are the victims, survivors and bystanders who saw the situation unfold. A judge experiences trauma alongside them as they retell their experiences.

This takes place in every type of courtroom.

In a sexual assault trial, for example, the prosecutor’s examination of the victim doesn’t stop with merely asking if there was an assault, getting a ‘yes’ answer, and then changing to a new line of questioning. In one of my trials, the victim of rape, domestic violence, false imprisonment and torture was on the stand for three days.

Three days.

Every single detail imaginable came out once, and then again and again, as direct and cross examination, then redirect and re-cross examination, requiring the victim to retell details again and again.

Wrongful death trials, family law custody hearings, probate cases between warring family members – they all require judges to hear awful things that people have lived through.

I’ve been on the bench since 1995. That’s a long time to absorb these secondary traumas, and my doctor has warned me there’s no way to reset this trauma-induced stress level back to zero. Secondary trauma builds and builds and builds.

Then there’s the anxiety disorder I mentioned. My brain chemistry does not work the way it should: serotonin does not flow from one cell to another as freely as it should; my cortisol level does not recede following stress-laden events as it should.

My anxiety disorder does not disqualify me from carrying out my responsibilities. I just need to take steps to avoid being overwhelmed by the stress: exercise, rest, eat well and pace myself on the job.

I also talk to my doctor about how I’m doing so she can keep tabs on my medical needs. That’s what an anxiety disorder is, after all. It’s a medical condition. Your brain is an organ just like your heart, and if it needs medical attention, you should seek it just as you would schedule an appointment with your cardiologist.

The stigma around mental health treatment is real, but treatment is vital to be able to engage in careers with huge responsibilities – just as it’s vital for the responsibilities everyone has, whether to your family, friends or community. The stigma that society places on mental health care should not keep people from thriving in their responsibilities.

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