Researcher trauma in fragile settings: A call to self-care and support

[Image: Juba, South Sudan, 2016]

Written by Lizle Loots1 and Elizabeth Dartnall2

Independent Consultant1; Sexual Violence Research Initiative2

Violent conflict impacts significantly on individuals, communities, and whole societies. As we witness economies in warring countries collapse, we see how social development becomes near impossible. Post-conflict, the hardship of rebuilding social capital prevents many people from pursuing careers they might have wanted or attending educational institutions in their own country. Current news is filled with stories of migrants, trying to build a better life beyond borders – many of whom may never be able to return to their home countries again.

Over the last few years, many organisations and institutions working in sexual and gender based violence have recognised the importance of building local capacity when undertaking research in conflict, post-conflict and developing settings. Platforms such as the SVRI Forums have focused on supporting researchers from low/middle-income and post-conflict settings, and have featured presentations and workshops on the topic. Increasingly, we see local researchers being trained to collect data on sexual and gender based violence, and aiding in the translation and transcription of qualitative data.

Such training was recently done with local South Sudanese researchers in Juba for a community-based project on church responses to sexual violence. The participants were a diverse group of men and women from different ethnic backgrounds, and included emerging researchers, activists, students, university staff and religious leaders. In a session on vicarious trauma[1], participants spontaneously shared their stories of direct trauma.  The devastating nature of their stories were enough to bring the entire workshop to its knees. It was in this moment that facilitation turned from teaching and exploring, to one of nurturing resilience shown within the group and witnessing the power of collective support.   

Communities experiencing severe, prolonged and cumulative stressors (e.g., poverty, war/combat, displacement, witnessing violence in families or communities) are likely to suffer complex trauma[2] at individual and collective levels. When working in fragile settings with vulnerable communities, it is critical then that we keep in mind the vulnerability of local partners who potentially carry their own deep wounds of trauma and who might be emotionally ‘triggered’ by traumatic stories from others in their country. We must also monitor our own emotional reactions and make sure we are engaging in appropriate levels of self-care.

Therapy is not always viable in developing or conflict settings so it is crucial for researchers and their managers to be aware of personal and group processes which might be taking a toll on researchers while working with trauma and violence. We need to prepare ourselves and our partners to manage trauma which may stem from own direct experiences or from doing sensitive work.

Much have been written about monitoring emotions and changes in one’s thinking to identify signs of vicarious trauma. Guidelines for mitigating such trauma have also recently been developed by the SVRI and partners; and various researchers who have suffered such trauma promote self-care activities such as yoga, massage therapy, music and art. In conflict countries such as South Sudan, the power of collective sharing (combined with song and prayer) was highlighted as an effective strategy. Further strategies (adapted from the SVRI Guidelines) include:

 

Strategies for researchers and their supervisors

Strategies for organisations

  • Provide supportive and effective supervision during data collection / analysis
  • Create opportunities for balancing workload and rotating responsibilities
  • Have referral mechanisms in place and understand vicarious trauma to recognise symptoms
  • Monitor team dynamics to address and manage possible conflict
  • Be well prepared before initiating data collection, ie. materials, food, lodging, payment, transportation etc.
  • Plan field research around safety and security of researcher teams (e.g. driving at night where there are potential roadblocks / animals on the roads)
  • Build an understanding of the risks of vicarious trauma and knowledge of what the organisation offers to mitigate such trauma
  • Create opportunities to debrief and discuss field experiences with researchers individually and in teams

 

  • Plan for safety at multiple levels (individual, project and organisational levels)
  • Research protocol must contain a plan of ongoing emotional support and workload management for researchers 
  • Develop policies and a mission statement that recognise the need for self-care and safety
  • Provide researchers with training on self-awareness and values clarification of the work
  • Include training on dealing with potential violent responses while conducting research
  • Provide referrals contact list or a map of referral mechanisms post-project

 

 

With such diverse personal lives and experiences, blended with a complex and potentially traumatic work life, how do we work to better ensure support to researchers and local partners doing sensitive work? Sensitive topics in research directly affects our lives, our awareness, transforms our thinking and the way we view the world around us. Gaining a better understanding of risk factors, especially our own trauma experiences and how it impacts on this work (and vice versa), we are better able to build resilience and strategies to manage trauma both for ourselves and the research teams we work with.  As researchers working in vulnerable communities, it is our duty to protect ourselves and our research partners. Emotional support should be a non-negotiable and not a nice-to-have.

For more on researcher trauma visit: http://www.svri.org/documents/researcher-trauma-and-safety and see the SVRI Forum 2011 workshop on vicarious trauma: http://www.svri.org/forums/forum2011/programme.htm

The community based project in South Sudan is led by the Tearfund Sexual Violence and Peace-Building Unit.

References

Courtois, C. A. (2004). Complex trauma, complex reactions: Assessment and treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41(4), 412-425.

Pearlman, L., & Saakvitne, K. (1995). Trauma and the therapist: Countertransference and vicarious traumatisation in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


[1] (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995) define ‘vicarious traumatisation’ as, ‘a transformation in the therapist’s (or other trauma worker’s) inner experience resulting from empathic engagement with the client’s trauma material.’

[2] Complex trauma ‘occurs repeatedly and escalates over its duration. In families, it is exemplified by domestic violence and child abuse and in other situations by war, prisoner of war or refugee status, and human trafficking.’ (Courtois, 2004)

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