Interpreting American Sign Language (ASL) can be a stressful job, and one of the most prevalent issues among interpreters is vicarious trauma.

Professor Charles R. Figley of Tulane University defines vicarious trauma as "the natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other."

In short, it is stress that comes from other people's experiences and can be felt as deeply as stress resulting from a person's own actions.

Health Effects

As the interpreting profession has grown, it has become clear that the job is not free of the issues that plague many careers. Studies have indicated that sicknessburnout and poor productivity are all closely related to work stress. Mental and physical health are connected closer than people may think.

Microaggressions are a common cause of vicarious trauma. Jase Rivera and Kathleen Darroch are both interpreters at RIT with associate degrees in ASL-English Interpretation who have experienced these.

“Not only do I have to be part of that message but then sometimes I can feel almost guilty,” Darroch said.

Having to interpret offensive and inhumane commentary can make the interpreter feel responsible for the message itself. In response, Darroch has decided to take the Cultural Humilities Certificate Course to better understand her privilege and become more culturally aware.

As an interpreter who is a part of the LGBTQ+ community and a person of color, Rivera often experiences vicarious trauma related to those communities.

“More things can be triggering for me and can trigger a vicarious trauma response than maybe other people,” Rivera explained.

Situations that can be triggering are different for everyone. Interpreter Stephanie Ferris, an RIT Interpreter with an associate degree in ASL-English Interpretation, interpreted for a friend and had to voice a traumatic experience they had undergone with the same emotion.

This was traumatic for her since she had not known about her friend’s experience, however, she was the interpreter at that moment, she couldn’t express her feelings. She had to continue doing her job until it was over when her role could become a friend and no longer an interpreter.

Although interpreters must portray the same emotions as the client, taking in the emotions you're portraying as your own can be emotionally damaging. Ferris refers to these situations as “cling-ons,” when an interpreter takes the emotions of the client and lets them attach to their own.

"If you know you're going to get triggered by something, don't take the work," Ferris explained, as many interpreters feel obligated to take jobs.

Vicarious trauma does not impact the mind alone. Psychologist Michael A. Harvey’s research into the relationship between vicarious trauma and interpreters suggests that untreated vicarious trauma can lead to unhealthy working conditions, which in turn can cause interpreters to suffer from repetitive strain injuries.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is a health condition related to people who overuse their hands. Usually, it occurs when nerves that run from the forearm to the palm get pinched at the wrist. The condition can lead to numbness and weakness in the hands, and in severe cases can cause the muscles at the base of the thumb to waste away.

According to Harvey, CTS and other strain injuries manifest in part as a result of psychological factors that drive interpreters to work beyond the recommended half-hour stints. This "compulsive work behavior" contributes to physical injury.

"In essence, repetitive strain injury is a symptom of untreated vicarious trauma," Harvey wrote.


At RIT, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a program that provides interpreters with counselors and other types of support.

“I’ve actually used the [EAP] because I do what’s called crisis interpreting," Darroch explained. "We are sometimes witnesses to various types of trauma and that can kind of stick to you.”

Crisis interpreting is used for deaf students having a mental health-related emergency and needs an interpreter. In response to the stress of the job, some look to social media for help.

“I have a couple of different Facebook groups of people that are like me,” Rivera said.​

Safe spaces exist specifically for interpreters who are people of color, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Others turn to religion for a healing outlet.

"I happen to be a believer in God and so for me, a big part of it is prayer,” Ferris explained.

Looking to a common belief can be therapeutic for some meanwhile others take different routes for healing.

A Misunderstood Field

Interpreting is a newer job that is easy to misunderstand making it hard for them to share their feelings. The job itself is generally overlooked, and more often are the mental health effects of working it.

“As far as society goes, I’m not sure [society] holistically understands what interpreters do to begin with, so as far as them understanding that we need to think about our mental health that's a later profession issue we can discuss with them [society],” Rivera explained.

Amanda Dole, an interpreter at RIT with an associate's degree in ASL interpreting, agreed that the interpreting profession is misunderstood.

“Unfortunately I think we get overlooked as a profession altogether,” Dole said.

In areas outside of Rochester, people misunderstand what interpreting is due to the lack of deaf people in their areas, which causes them to be less likely to interact with an interpreter.

'Oh, so you teach sign language!' Dole said — impersonating a person in an attempt to express the misconceptions about interpreters, including the idea that people frequently think they are ASL teachers.

Similar to Dole, Ferris was once thought to have been a note-taker for a deaf individual.

"You're taking notes for them? I'd love to have a copy of those notes!" Farris said, mimicking the person.

In the interpreting community, the interpreters agree that mental health is something that needs more attention. Dole feels interpreters could benefit from more workshops, conversations, and meditation sessions for mental health and trauma.

Vicarious trauma and mental health are issues that need to be focused on in all people, including interpreters. The job can be difficult at times, and recognizing the issues that are unique to the profession is an important step to supporting the people who support others as a career.