Understanding ‘Vulnerability’

Vulnerability. It is a universal term increasingly adopted by practitioners and academics in clinical work and literature, often associated with risk, contrasted with resilience, or serving as a justification for intervention and support. Yet in doing so, we have perhaps never fully considered what ‘vulnerability’ actually means, or encapsulates. Consider a victim of repeated sexual abuse from a caregiver, an offender with a traumatic upbringing and a lack of appropriate coping strategies, or a household in which domestic violence occurs. Does vulnerability lie with the victim, the offender, or the situation? This was the interesting question posed at a recent conference.

If we take a step back, the whole notion of vulnerability is rather complex. Various definitions of vulnerability emerged: “risk factors”, “situations that expose people to high or elevated risk”, “reasons why the same people are constantly revictimised”, “we should instead consider needs, not vulnerabilities”, “everyone is vulnerable, but it is the exploitation of that vulnerability that is criminalised”.

Given the diversity of views, it is tempting to consider whether vulnerability can add anything to our understanding of a person, as the term can miss marginalised groups and people with multiple vulnerabilities. A number of statistics were presented: 61% of children who are in care are so due to abuse and neglect. In addition, 68% of all adverse events are suffered by repeat victims. The debate is often centred on who is vulnerable, and in doing so, we end up placing victims into subgroups according to their gender, age, ethnicity and so on – which is not always helpful.

Perhaps we should focus less on which particular demographic is vulnerable, and instead consider the situation in which individuals find themselves in. More broadly, wider structures such as the criminal justice or residential child care systems can also unintentionally maintain vulnerability. In these environments, decisions are often made for or on behalf of ‘vulnerable’ individuals, such as those with mental health needs or young people. This can be challenging, as some may argue this takes away the autonomy of the individual.

The focus then shifts as to how we can intervene or mitigate the impact of situations that make individuals vulnerable. This may involve steps to reduce harm against a person, changing situations that generate vulnerability by identifying underlying causes for the behaviour, and reforming systems in society to promote greater autonomy.

Clearly, there is a need to refine our perceptions of vulnerability. This will not be an easy task, but it has the potential for a major shift in our understanding of this vitally important topic, with implications for both theory and clinical practice.