Studying traumatic events comes with its own risks – the scientific establishment needs to be doing more to protect researchers, says Dale Dominey-Howes and Danielle Drozdzewski.
What’s the issue and why is it important?
Earth is destabilizing rapidly. Terrorism, conflict, genocide, human displacement, socio-economic disruption, rapid global environmental change, slow emergencies and natural disasters are more common than at any point in history. Consequently, opportunities exist for researchers to investigate the causes, consequences and potential management solutions arising from this instability. For this to happen, we need a well-trained workforce equipped with the skills and capabilities to work with ‘traumatic’ research content, people and places.
Researchers in many disciplines do work involving traumatic content, with traumatized people, including rape victims, accident survivors and murderers; in traumatic places, including war zones, disaster zones and crime scenes. However, researchers are increasingly realizing that such research and critically, its repetition, causes ‘vicarious or secondary researcher trauma’. Researching traumatic events can be, in itself, traumatic.
Researcher trauma manifests in an ‘assemblage of physical and emotional symptoms’ that may include but is not limited to headaches, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal upsets, increased stress, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, weight loss/gain and in extreme cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and tragically even suicide. Clearly, ‘researcher trauma’ has negative effects on the short and long-term wellbeing of researchers and their sense of self.
Significantly, given the wider higher education sectors’ tendency towards the rapid production of research and research results, and documented evidence of increased anxiety, stress and general poor mental health, the additional burden of ‘researcher trauma’ is, in our view, potentially catastrophic for those researchers. Only in a few disciplines, researchers are trained to anticipate, recognise, plan for and respond to researcher trauma. Fewer still incorporate planning for the effects of research on their staff in ethics approval processes.
However, for the vast majority of researchers setting out on a career focused on traumatic research content, people and places, in the broader social sciences and humanities, including our discipline of geography, there is an almost complete absence of the recognition of researcher trauma, its outcomes and effects. This represents a significant gap in our understanding of the research process and there are no tools and skills taught to them (us) to prepare for, and to respond to, problems when things go wrong – as they often do.
Consequently, researchers setting out on such a career path are especially vulnerable and ill-prepared for the impact on them as individuals. Given the modern research environment’s thrust to swifter publication and fast-as-possible research productivity, space and time to make sense of dealing with traumatic experiences are two commodities researchers often do not have.
So what can we do to manage the issue of researcher trauma?
For researchers setting out on careers dedicated to researching traumatic content, people and places, it is critical that they, their supervisors and employers acknowledge and prepare for potential researcher trauma.
- Not underestimate the potential negative effects of researcher trauma
- Build in strategies to cope with the stress of traumatic research in the field. Perhaps researchers should get a day off every five days; or regular exercise; or daily debriefings with a coworker.
- Regularly touch base with their supervisors and talk about their feelings and any stress from fieldwork.
- Give themselves rewards whilst on fieldwork to break the cycle of pressure and stress.
- Talk to junior researchers in their care about what they might encounter in relation to researcher trauma.
- Provide training to junior researchers in relation to researcher trauma, as part of the rest of the training curriculum.
- Touch base regularly with researchers when they are in the field to provide support and encouragement.
- Include debrief sessions within supervisory meetings to facilitate open discussion of fieldwork.
- Ensure that junior researchers are aware of the counselling facilities provided on campus.
- Build researcher self-care into institutional human ethics protocols.
- Develop workshops or other types of training materials to support researchers.
- Provide the time, space and understanding researchers need to make sense of and come to terms with the traumatic research they do.
- Monitor the well-being of staff engaging in traumatic research.
Check out our guest-edited Special Issue of Emotion, Space and Society for further examples of positive approaches to managing researcher trauma.
Dale Dominey-Howes is a geographer at The University of Sydney specializing in natural hazards and disaster risk reduction.
Danielle Drozdzewski is a geographer at The University of New South Wales with particular interest in cultural memories and the interlinkages between memory and identity.