April 24 2018

Researching survivor experiences of trauma

Mia Scally, Professor Joanna R Adler & Dr Miranda A H Horvath explore the risks facing researchers working with survivors of trauma, and what can be done preserve the researcher’s emotional safety.

‘Self-care is foundational to our power, our resilience, our creativity, our health and our collective impact. Just as a fire needs breathing space between the logs to burn, we need spaciousness in our days to be impactful and sustainable’Norma Wong

Research with survivors of any traumatic event or series of events can be an incredibly powerful experience. ‘Bearing witness’ to a survivor’s experience should not be undertaken without full consideration of the potential costs and challenges that might arise for both the survivor and the researcher, and the benefits of undertaking such research should be clear and justifiable.  This includes prioritising the emotional safety of the researcher as part of the design of a project and as a prerequisite for ethical approval, as highlighted by the World Health Organisation.

This blog post seeks to explore how a researcher might be affected by research with survivors and how this can be mitigated.

The research project

As part of my doctoral studies (supervised by Dr. Miranda A H Horvath and Prof. Joanna R Adler), I am investigating women’s experiences of child custody in the context of intimate partner violence and abuse (IPVA). This exploratory research will build on knowledge within England and Wales, where literature on this topic is limited. This mixed-methods research project combines secondary research (qualitative analysis of online posts) with both qualitative (interviews with survivors) and quantitative methods (a survey for professionals*) to form three interconnected studies. Study one was completed in 2017 and involved thematic analysis of 68 online public accounts and associated comments threads detailing female survivors’ experiences of the child custody process where IPVA has been present. Study two involves in-depth interviews with survivors of IPVA.

The interviews have been completed and this posting is being written as a reflection whilst embarking upon the analysis process. The interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim, resulting in repeated exposure to the content of each interview. Although fewer in number than the 68 online accounts, engaging with women’s narratives first-hand and immersion in their accounts entails more emotional labour.  The interviews included descriptions of violence, deeply personal accounts from women experiencing distress and trauma, and suggestions of poor or limited professional responses that have resulted in feelings of frustration and anger (mostly for the survivors but also for me). ‘Bearing witness’ to these women’s lived experiences and their repercussions involved a great deal of personal navigation and active management.

This is not uncommon and other researchers have discussed various forms of emotional labour throughout trauma-related research. They argue that emotions are part of being human and that qualitative research requires you to view things from the perspective of the participant. Emotional labour in such research can include feeling and showing emotions (e.g. as part of post interview reflection, or during an interview itself), suppressing emotions (particularly in academia, rigour and emotion may be perceived as incompatible), and navigating these emotions as part of the research process (e.g. considering one’s own relationships in a different light).

I found myself experiencing each of these elements: feeling emotionally exhausted by the interviews, then subsequently by the transcription; avoiding writing in my reflective journal because I wanted to suppress these emotions; and finally, reflecting on how my world view might have changed as a result of what I now know. Some of these reactions can be explained as vicarious or secondary trauma and can result from one-off or repeated exposure to survivor trauma. Vicarious trauma (in this context) is defined as a reaction to or an alteration of the inner world of the researcher because of empathising with the survivor and their traumatic experiences (e.g. someone researching child abuse might become more protective of their own child). Secondary trauma can also result from such research and is characterised by a symptomatic response similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. This can include taking on the trauma of the survivor, avoiding the research that is the source of the secondary trauma, and experiencing symptoms such as sleep disturbance or hyperarousal.

Research has explored the impact of working in the field of violence against women on practitioners and clinicians. Vicarious trauma experienced by researchers is less well understood although, there has more recently been acknowledgement that ‘the role of a researcher is different from that of a clinician or counselor and potentially more traumatizing because of an inability to “help” the victim’ (p96). I found this particularly difficult to balance (partly as a result of my previous experiences in supporting survivors of violence and abuse) and I spent time reflecting on my role in this research and what I could do to ensure the women being interviewed were supported. Offering participants a debrief sheet that listed support services was helpful here (and also an ethical requirement). I also chose to send participants a copy of their transcripts prior to commencing analysis. Participants were able to add to these in a different colour so that they could continue their story beyond the time limitations of the interview. This came from one of the women in the study. The participant was frustrated because she had to leave but wanted to finish telling her story. I equally didn’t want to silence her story so this is the solution we arrived at together. Another survivor mentioned how helpful the interview experience had been for her and how much she gained from sharing her story with me. That was powerful and helped me in return because I saw that the research was able to give back. It was able to ‘help’albeit in a different way than that of a clinician or a counsellor.

Protecting the researcher

Through counselling, close supervision and a reflective journal I was able to identify and work through the emotions raised by this project. I am much more able to recognise the impact of research and I ensure that I practice appropriate self-care when this is necessary. I make sure to undertake only one interview or transcription per day for example, and I take the time to read non-academic books so as to recuperate. Some work has been undertaken to help identify what other researchers have found helpful to militate against some of the impact of research with challenging topics and this is briefly summarised below.

Preparation – knowing what to expect from the topic and preparing for the project is seen as key. Planning debrief sessions, regular meetings with the research team, reading around the topic, and considering the risks to researcher wellbeing are all vital. Risk assessments are usually conducted as part an ethics process and emotional wellbeing should be considered as part of this. In addition, when preparing for data collection, it is important to take into account how to schedule the interviews and allow time for reading, processing and engaging with the material generated. The consensus is that too much exposure to challenging content in one day can be overwhelming. Try to ensure that you only undertake one interview in a day and plan your day so that you have minimal work or research related activities for the rest of it. This also applies to transcription of interviews and taking breaks when reading data is particularly important in research in these domains. Participants in previous research also found that limiting exposure to challenging topics in the way of media/books/TV was helpful.

Formal and informal support – Having a range of sources of support is viewed as beneficial by researchers. Clinical supervision, regular meetings with research supervisors, ongoing counselling (don’t wait until you realise you need this to organise it), and debriefing sessions with colleagues are all cited as helpful forms of formal support. Informal support may include discussions with family and friends, colleagues or team members. Making time to process the impact of researching sensitive topics and having open discussions about this is important.  If you are a Middlesex University student undertaking research that explores sensitive or distressing topics, please see the Wellbeing team website to see what support the Counselling & Mental Health service can offer you. If you are a member of staff, you can access the employee assistance programme – Optum.

Know how to support survivors – Coles et al. (2014) highlight this for two reasons: it is important to understand the boundaries of your role as a researcher – you are not typically a counsellor and are unlikely to be able to make professional onward referrals. However, you can signpost sources of support and this may itself provide peace of mind for the researcher. Such signposting can be as simple as developing a debrief sheet for participants with sources of support – required for ethical approval to research with human participants and vital to minimise harm to survivors – and sharing the contact details or location of local support services.

Understand your limitations – Being clear with your supervisors and yourself about whether and how you are coping with challenging content is vital. This can require reflection and may be an ongoing process. Knowing when to stop a task that is causing you harm is important. Evidence around whether having experienced the topic you are researching places you at increased risk of vicarious or secondary trauma is mixed, however keeping a reflective journal can be helpful here. Try to spend ten minutes whenever you can, writing about your experience of doing research and the current task. Take some time to explore how you are feeling about the process, analysis or findings. This serves not only to safeguard your mental wellbeing but also to enable you to develop as a researcher. In qualitative research, reflecting on what you bring to the research is part of the process.

Self-care – Take some time to do something fun or relaxing and schedule this in. Going for a walk in the woods, spending an hour at the gym, reading a book, taking a long bath or going out for a nice meal – this will be different for everyone. For some helpful resources, see this Self-Care Starter Kit developed by the School of Social Work, University of Buffalo.

Research that matters – For some, knowing that the research will make a difference can help them cope with the content. Are you going to publish from the research? Is it going to help develop or evaluate interventions? Will it contribute to the literature or help develop policy? Keeping this in mind may help.

I keep a reflective journal, attend regular supervision, have ongoing counselling and like to watch far too much reality television – what works for you?

*If you are a professional involved in the child custody process and would like to contribute to this important research, please consider taking part in or sharing the following survey exploring beliefs and practice when it comes to custody decisions.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Naomi Graham for kindly taking the time to read, comment on and reduce the word count of the first draft of this blog post (some would say this is the hardest part!)

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