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Behind the frontline: recognising and managing the risk of vicarious trauma in research

The flashing light and wailing siren of an ambulance are designed to alert us to an emergency. As they race past, we are all too aware that first responders like paramedics see trauma and catastrophe daily, for which they have our profound thanks and admiration.

They also have access to specialist training, support and therapy, because trauma doesn’t only affect the individual subjected to it. It can transfer, rippling out to those who witness it. In some cases, this can lead to vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress, described by the American Counselling Association as ‘the emotional residue of exposure’.

It’s an issue that’s recognised and provided for when it comes to frontline roles like police or health professionals. But how much thought do we give to academic researchers – more familiar with a dictaphone than a defibrillator – who may also be putting their mental health on the line through proximity to traumatic content in their work? 

Academic research may be commonly characterised as objective, impassive and neutral, but the rigorous pursuit of knowledge and understanding at its heart means it must extend to areas of intense human suffering or acute stress – from analysis of the effects of torture to the melting of sea ice. Researchers in areas like these may find themselves spending considerable time working closely with data or accounts associated with significant trauma. The impact of this can be distressing and disruptive – especially for those caught unawares, unconscious of the risk and unprepared for it.

Sometimes, for example, stigma or shame may have prevented an interviewee from speaking in-depth about a traumatic experience. This means that when they do, what they share may be particularly raw, unchecked or intensely emotional. This can be cathartic for the speaker but may leave a researcher reeling. The trauma may then be repeatedly revisited through the stages of transcribing, analysing, writing up and presenting the research. A frontline worker can draw comfort from the fact that their role is to help relieve the suffering of the traumatised individual. In contrast, a researcher may have a short, painful encounter and then be left in limbo, feeling affected but helpless.

But it’s not just 1:1 experiences with individuals.

Researchers report that exposure to detailed, factual information, such as police files, can also cause distress. Likewise, many scientists such as marine biologists and zoologists are experiencing grief as they track the data that reveals the devastating degradation of the environment.

The range of research with the potential to expose people to vicarious trauma is wide: from medicine to criminology to climate science. So what can be done to protect individual wellbeing and ensure vital research is ethically and sustainably managed in the long term?

1.Recognise it

The effects of vicarious trauma can be disruptive and hard to recover from, and include:

  • emotional detachment or numbness
  • diminished concentration and confusion
  • intrusive thoughts and images
  • low energy and fatigue
  • feelings of guilt or anger
  • self-destructive coping behaviours
  • symptoms of dissociation

To protect both individuals and research programmes, the risks and signs of vicarious trauma must be widely recognised at every level from peers to supervisors, line managers and institutional administrators. This may require training. It may also necessitate broader efforts to address issues such as isolation or fear of speaking up, if they exist.

2. Plan for it

Without a plan, the pressures of delivering a research project on time and within budget may well eclipse efforts to manage the emotional needs of a team. Reviewing risks at the outset and planning with emotional safety front of mind is key. Dr Hayley Bennett, a social policy researcher at the University of Edinburgh, highlights the ‘importance of including counselling costs and time in research grants’ in this Twitter thread.

3. Provide support

This can range from more time- and cost-heavy counselling and therapy to simple but effective measures such as:

  • Setting up a system of peer support, where colleagues intentionally check in with each other regularly
  • Putting emotional wellbeing on meeting agendas
  • Protecting time away from work, so people are actively encouraged to rest and invest in activities that improve their wellbeing.

Given the scale and urgency of challenges facing the planet and its people, research into tough areas seems set to become only more vital. Concerted efforts now to recognise and mitigate risks like vicarious trauma will be key to ensuring researchers continue to play an essential role in exploring ways to address the challenges that lie ahead.

Further reading

Guidelines for the prevention and management of vicarious trauma among researchers of sexual and intimate partner violence from the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, South Africa

Vicarious trauma: signs and strategies for coping from the British Medical Association

The Emotional Toll of Climate Change on Science Professionals

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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