In the criminal justice system, victim advocates play a vital role in providing support to victims of crime. These trained professionals provide emotional support along with assistance in areas such as referral services, safety planning and more. Because many of their clients have experienced serious trauma, it is important for victim advocates to understand the warning signs and symptoms of trauma as well as the effect of traumatic experiences on an individual’s physical and mental health.

Defining Trauma: Trauma Symptoms

Trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Many experiences can be considered traumatic or disturbing, and crime is no exception. Immediately after the event, responses like shock and denial are normal, but longer-term reactions can be cognitive, behavioral, physical and psychological. When people have difficulty moving on with their life after experiencing a traumatic event, they often need interventions such as psychotherapy or psychiatric medication.

In some cases, trauma progresses to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which a person experiences or witnesses “an event or events that involved actual threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and which involved fear, helplessness, or horror,” Psychology Today explains. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, an individual must be evaluated by a mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The following are some of the most frequently experienced trauma symptoms:

  • Sudden, intrusive thoughts of the event
  • Loss of memory and difficulty concentrating
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks and visual images of the event
  • Avoiding activities or places that produce memories of the event
  • Withdrawal and social isolation
  • Hypervigilance (extreme alertness)
  • Overwhelming fears
  • Emotional detachment
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression

Untreated Trauma

In most cases, strong physical or emotional reactions following trauma stop after the first few days or weeks. However, in some cases, the symptoms may be more severe and last longer. This could be due to the type of traumatic event experienced, lack of support, life stressors and more. The effects of untreated trauma can have a serious and negative impact on the individual’s life. Some of the most common are:

  • Substance abuse
  • Social withdrawal
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Impulsive decision-making
  • Reactive thoughts
  • Dissociative symptoms
  • Depression

How to Become a Victim's Advocate

West Virginia State University offers a 100% online B.S. in Criminal Justice. Graduates gain the training required to serve the public by creating safer communities and standing up for those who need help.

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Because victim advocates work closely with victims of crime after traumatic events, they play an important role in ensuring that victims can access the treatment they need. Though they cannot prescribe medication or provide treatment themselves, victim advocates are able to share information with their clients about the options available. Referring their clients to mental health services is one of the most important aspects of victim advocacy careers.

How Victim Advocacy Works

Victim advocates are criminal justice professionals trained to support victims of crime. Aside from providing emotional support, victim advocates offer information about the criminal justice system, assist in filling out complex paperwork and advocate for their clients by working with social service agencies and attending court.

Also known as victim service providers, witness coordinators and victim specialists, victim advocates are knowledgeable about their clients’ legal rights and protections and support victims during trials and other processes, the National Center for Victims of Crime explains. They play a vital role in minimizing the effects of trauma and ensuring that it is recognized and treated.

Getting Started: Criminal Justice Education at West Virginia State University

Undergraduate study in criminal justice is an ideal way to prepare for a career in victim advocacy. West Virginia State University offers a fully online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree that gives students a theoretical and practical understanding of the modern criminal justice system. With a curriculum informed by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, this program features an in-depth study of the causes of crime and the relationship between criminal justice and society. WVSU also offers criminal justice certificate options in investigation, corrections, law enforcement and more.