Secondary Trauma and Researchers

Drawing on new research based on the experiences of a research team working on a project exploring gender based violence, Dr Emma Williamson discusses the negative emotional impact that can arise for researchers working on traumatic issues, their coping mechanisms and calls on funders and Universities to look at positive ways to address this.

The Centre for Gender and Violence Research has been conducting research on gender based violence (gbv) for 30 years.  Over that time researchers have collectively interviewed hundreds of victims-survivors of different types of abuse: domestic violence (dv), sexual abuse, rape, FGM, (so-called) honor based violence, bride price, dowry related abuse, family violence, child abuse, and child exploitation. We have also read, and written, thousands of articles on this subject and analysed thousands of case files in social care, child protection, police, criminal justice, health, housing, welfare, and third sector support agencies.

We have learnt many things over the years and contributed to knowledge and understanding globally about gbv. We also know, first hand, the difficulties faced by researchers themselves when trying to work in this emotionally difficult and draining environment.

Many of us have worked in other sectors, as advocates or professionals. We have, in those arenas, had access to clinical supervision.  As researchers we routinely do not. This is in spite of the obvious impact that working in this field has. In response to these issues we recently published an article1 which looks at the impact of working in potentially traumatic areas on researchers. That article, in the Journal of Academic Ethics, looks at the wider context of secondary trauma; the impact on researchers in the gbv field; considers both individual and collective coping mechanisms; and makes recommendations for policy in this area.

The researchers highlight the different ways that interviews, case file analysis, and literature reviews on difficult topics can have a profound impact, as one researcher stated:

Reading through police case files could be just as depressing and upsetting in some of the worst cases and especially the cases involving child victims of rape and family abuse. The police files /child sex abuse cases were particularly hard because of the language and detail of information I was reading – very matter of fact descriptions of the physical sexual acts/ abuse (which I didn’t hear generally during the interviews with victims-survivors). There was also a time when I was collecting data on a DV case and there was a warning attached to the victim’s file which said *DEAD* so I had read all about her history of domestic violence, family abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and then found out that she had actually been found dead 2 weeks after the latest incident and her partner had [previously] been arrested on suspicion of her murder but no further action had been taken (when you could see the pattern of abuse she had suffered and was obviously extremely vulnerable) – that made me gasp out loud in the open plan (and quiet) office I was in (embarrassing) and made me incredibly sad. I cried on my drive home that day.

As well as many incidents of negative impacts of this work, the paper also highlights why researchers continue to work in these traumatic fields and the many healthy and unhealthy coping strategies they adopt when conducting fieldwork. These strategies included:

Definitely mindfulness, meditation, and running (not at the same time!). Spending time with family. Counting my blessings. Also wine, chocolate and binge TV watching.

One of the main conclusions of the paper is a call for funders and Universities to look at whether a form of academic clinical supervision should be automatically funded and made available to successful research projects dealing with traumatic issues. We believe that current provision is generally reactive, rather than proactive, and the minimal additional cost would allow researchers to make choices about whether the negative impacts of such research is sustainable for them, outside of the normal line management structure. With researchers struggling to fit their existing costs within the parameters of funding calls (particularly in some disciplines where funding is lower) we believe ring fenced additionally provided resource for clinical supervision also ensures that researchers who recognize this as an important issue are not penalized in the application process.

As such, we call on funders to address this issue.  At a time when health and well-being are clear objectives in research council priorities, it is surprising that this is not being discussed in terms of the research community already.

Having 30 years experience of working in this area, the Centre for Gender and Violence Research is well aware of the support researchers need to conduct this type of work, we call on others to join us to address this issue and look at positive ways to minimize the negative impacts of working in this area.  As one researcher said:

You think it would get easier over the years, but it doesn’t. The fact that we keep having to have these conversations is in itself depressing on top of the nature of the issues we are dealing with.

If we want to continue to develop researcher’s skills in difficult areas then addressing the ways in which traumatic research can negatively impact on them is, in our view, essential.

1Secondary Trauma: Emotional Safety in Sensitive Research in the Journal for Academic Ethics.
Williamson, E., Gregory, A., Abrahams, H. et al. J Acad Ethics (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-019-09348-y

See also: Call to fund counselling for researchers in traumatic subjects in the THE.

 

CGVR 30th Anniversary
The Centre for Gender and Violence Research will be holding a day conference event and wine reception on 13th May 2020 to celebrate it’s 30 year anniversary. For more details please keep an eye on the School for Policy Studies event page.

 

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Susanna Siddiqui

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