Let’s Talk About Interpreters’ Mental Health

Interpreters share the stage alongside other professionals. Community Interpreters, interpreters that work in health care and mental health settings, work in synergy with doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, lawyers, immigration officials, and an ongoing list of other specialists and authorities. And yet, this mutual arrangement is not always acknowledged. Interpreters are often seen as ad-hoc language aides that come as needed and leave when they are no longer required. This short-term presence can have some long-term effects.

Frequently the conversation is about interpreters’ work in mental health settings, and less about interpreters’ own mental health status and, more importantly, what we, as the community of educators, service providers and advocates, can do to ensure better support and responsiveness to interpreters’ needs. We teach interpreters the required skills and provide the necessary education that admits them to work in complex care settings so that they can serve as critical communication links, but we must also recognize the impact that working in these settings may have on the practitioner’s own mental health, and not expect them to endure, unaffected by what they experience. Interpreters have shared that even 4, 5, 6 years after an assignment, they are still haunted by the events of the appointment.

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is an unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.
Rachel Remen, MD (1996)

Community interpreters experience a daily mix of scenarios and settings. They are chanced with working alongside a wide-ranging medley of clinicians, professionals, personnel, clients, and the associated family and friends. Their day may include visiting an immigration detention centre, attending at a domestic violence investigation at the police station, or at a ministry office for a financial assistance application, or perhaps an end-of-life discussion at the palliative care ward, or a visit to the emergency room for a patient experiencing a psychotic episode, who has been strapped to a bed. And what happens after each of these events? The professional in attendance, the other professional that is, signs the appointment form to confirm the interpreter’s presence. The interpreter gets into their car and travels to the next appointment. At the end of their day, they go home, take on their familial role, and try to ignore the people that they became, the experiences that they had, and the vicarious emotions that they experienced.

To honour a professional tenet of confidentiality, interpreters are not permitted to divulge any appointment-specific information, and this is correct. But somehow breaking confidentiality has become synonymous with not speaking at all, and that is wrong. A part of any competent professional practice is the facility to debrief, to check in, to learn and to heal. Interpreter’s work alongside professionals who have — embedded in their own professional training and education, or as a service provided by their employers — trade unions, professional memberships and networks, as well as education and training on resilience, self-care, understanding trauma and vicarious trauma, professional boundaries, and strategies to promote mental health and wellness. What about freelance interpreters?

Interpreting is an exciting, dynamic job done by passionate people (as an interpreter once said to me, “This thing that started out as just a small thought, has become a whole new career.”) While interpreters are driven to this mandate by having the right qualities to do the job, we must also provide them with the necessary foundation and healing space to continue.

Angela Sasso

December 2017


mental health care interpreting


medical interpreters

community interpreting

healthcare interpreting

cross cultural mental healht

interpreters’ self care