Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network

Human Rights Defenders

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 1



“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is the emotional cost of witnessing other people's suffering and need.  Vicarious trauma is essentially the cost of empathy - the ability to identify with another person, to understand and feel another person’s pain and joy.  While it is true that many human rights advocates, whistleblowers and humanitarian workers are changed positively by their experiences,  there can also be negative changes caused by caring for and caring about others who have been hurt.  When you care about other people and you are committed and feel responsible to help them, there can be changes in yourself – changes in your psychological, physical and spiritual well-being.  This process of change happens over time so it is a cumulative effect of one's contact with the survivors of human rights abuses, violence, crime or disaster.  It is the effect on the person who is trying to help others.  It is the emotional cost of attempting to help those are struggling and the on-going stress of dealing daily with continuing human rights violations and civil rights violations.  Watching others who have experienced neglect of essential needs, abuse, loss and sometimes outright cruelty, is a heavy burden to bear for one committed to help.  Everyone has their own experience and although it is impossible to actually live in someone else's shoes, it is possible to care deeply and be affected by the trauma and tragedy of their lives.  Empathy is  when you care about and identify with the pain of people.   When you have listened compassionately to those who have endured terrible things, you bring their grief, fear, anger, and despair into your own awareness and experience their suffering vicariously.  Those who work with whistleblowers, whether they are legal advocates, attorneys, social workers, religious leaders, human rights advocates, mandated reporters, law enforcement officers, US attorneys and prosecutors, are often dealing with persons who may have experienced terrifying violence and profound losses. Many of these people are desperate and some have lost hope.   Thus in the act of trying to defend the human rights and civil rights of others, human rights defenders and advocates assume a heavy responsibility by rising to the challenge to confront the wrong and conveying the message, “I’m here to help. There is hope.”  The more compassionate, caring and committed one feels, the more likely one is to feel vicarious trauma when hearing or seeing the suffering of others.  Thus feeling deeply committed and responsible can contribute to the process of vicarious trauma.

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”
― Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe
"Everyone reacts according to their background and experience. You see a refugee who looks like your grandmother, then you are worse off than the man next to you who doesn’t. You need to be open to that. Our experiences sometimes help us through, sometimes they hit us from a strange angle we didn’t expect or understand."
Christen Halle (Quoted in Danieli, 2002, p.17)

Spiritual Well-being

Witnessing other's great personal suffering and tragedy and attempting to help them through the challenges of an unresponsive governmental system and an uncomprimising and unaccepting community can lead to changes in one's spiritual perceptions and even one's deepest held beliefs that give a sense of meaning and purpose to ones' life.  Being able to bring hope to other's in the midst of their despair can give a human rights defender or advocate a feeling of great purpose, hope and expand their spiritual faith.  

Courageously facing opposition over and over, almost requires a deep spiritual perspective and by engaging with other survivors/victims of trauma or abuse, one learns to better able to understand and empathize with others. When moral and ethical requests to those in power to affect change, lead to little or no forward movement to correct problems, it is hard to keep hope.  But when over and over again, one is confronted with an unresponsive community and governing entities, and when time and time again one's pleas for human rights and civil rights protections are unheeded, it is hard not to get cynical and to possibly loose one's spiritual faith or at least question it's boundaries and deeply held beliefs.  This spiritual quest for meaning is central to finding hope in the midst of despair.  It is about a deep spiritual journey to re-examine the basic tenets of life and how one is connected to  the universe, and to redefine the nature of one's existence and nature of meaning and hope.   So essentially, one is forced to either change positively or negatively about one's own religious belief system.  This is why spiritual support is so important to whistleblowers and human rights advocates/defenders when they are actively trying to change the system, and to tell truth to power.

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

― Henri J.M. Nouwen,
The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one...just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald
“To perceive is to suffer.”

― Aristotle
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

― Ernest Hemingway

What are the changes in beliefs that can occur with Vicarious Trauma?

Questioning one's own spiritual beliefs, one's sense of purpose, the meaning of hope and connection to one's spiritual faith.

Questioning who one is,  who is important in one's life,  what gives one's life meaning and purpose, one's relationship to one's professional career and community.

Questions about safety and security,  how to protect one's self and those one is advocating for, how much to trust outsiders and those in the community, how to protect the vulnerable survivors/victims from harm,  whether one can attain intimacy and safety with another, who to trust with one's safety, how to protect oneself and those who you feel responsible for.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

― James Baldwin

What are the symptoms of Vicarious Trauma?

Anxiety and Fear

Anger, Depression

Flashbacks /Unwanted, Intrusive & Distressing Memories of Retaliation Events


Difficulty Concentrating

Self-blame, Guilt

Social Isolation
Shutting down or Emotional numbing
Physical health symptoms

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not - and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation - in its’ arguably most tranformative and revelatory capacity it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

― J.K. Rowling

Vicarious Trauma can lead to difficulties such as:

Difficulty managing your emotions;

Difficulty accepting or feeling okay about yourself;

Difficulty making good decisions;

Problems managing the boundaries between yourself and others (e.g., taking on too much responsibility, having difficulty leaving work at the end of the day, trying to step in and control other’s lives);

Problems in relationships;

Physical problems such as aches & pains, illnesses, accidents;

Difficulty feeling connected to what’s going on around and within you;

Loss of meaning and hope.

“Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy.”

― Dean Koontz
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
― Leo Buscaglia

Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network


P.O. 42700 

Washington, DC 20015

MedicalWhistleblowers (at)


"Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."  Confucius

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt- Excerpt from the speech "Citizenship In A Republic", delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910