How do we manage our emotional responses when researching traumatic material? Anna Kemball reviews the Researching Trauma in the Arts & Humanities one-day workshop held at the University of Glasgow on 19th October 2018.
Researching Trauma in the Arts & Humanities was a one-day workshop that addressed a training need identified across disciplines and HEIs in Scotland, namely the need to understand and manage emotional responses when we conduct research on traumatic material. Held at the University of Glasgow on 19th October 2018, the workshop brought together around 20 postgraduate researchers currently undertaking research that involved sexual violence, mental distress, domestic abuse, suicide and other challenging research interests.
Vicarious Trauma as ‘Emotional Residue’
The day began with a session on vicarious trauma led by trainers from Forth Valley Rape Crisis Centre and Rape Crisis Scotland. As trauma that arises from repeated exposure to or empathic engagement with trauma survivors or traumatic material, vicarious trauma is understood to be an occupation challenge in various professions, but under-researched among academics and researchers. This workshop provided an overview of the signs and symptoms, risk factors, and ways to cope with vicarious trauma in a way that was tailored specifically to academia. The trainers covered questions on accepting professional limitations and the need to protect our mental health. Recognising that empathy and engagement – key risk factors of vicarious trauma – should also be considered as strengths in our work was strongly encouraged.
It was certainly beneficial to go beyond the generalising discourse of ‘self care’ that pervades discussions of postgraduate mental health and to have such discussions led by trauma professionals who could offer critical perspectives on the unhealthy habits and behaviours that have been normalised within academia. Conversations pointed towards the structural, systemic risk factors that increase individual and interpersonal vulnerability to vicarious trauma for postgraduates.
Something I took away from the workshop was a greater understanding of what could be perceived as traumatising. Discussions within the group clearly indicated that our research doesn’t have to involve living participants; for many the daily encounter with fictional or creative representations of trauma can be a risk factor. Yet, in terms of guidelines and regulations offered by departments, structural support was often found to be limited if our research does not include living human participants. From the outset we are (rightly) trained to think about the ethics of designing and conducting research from the participant’s position, but to what extent and how consistently are postgraduates trained to think about their own position as a researcher? If an ethical review process identifies only a minimal risk to who or what we research, is it assumed that we as researchers only require minimal support?
Working with Trauma
The afternoon’s panel discussion brought together several academics who research traumatic subjects areas: Dr Erin Jessee (University of Glasgow), Dr Churnjeet Mahn (University of Strathclyde), Prof Karen Boyle (University of Strathclyde). Advice on how to teach, disseminate and communicate our research in a sensitive manner came at a welcome time, given that many attendees were embarking upon their teaching careers and were beginning to publish their work. Each panel member spoke eloquently and generously about their personal experiences of how their research has (or hasn’t) affected them on an emotional level. This included challenging and frank discussions around the fetishisation of trauma in relation to funding applications, the further exploitation of traumatised subjects for professional gain when publications and impact are prioritised above ethics. Mahn encouraged us to employ feminist ethics in our work, so as to constantly rethink and assess our working practices with traumatised subjects even after the completion of ethical clearances.
If the overall aim of the morning’s workshop had been to better inform the attendees about vicarious trauma, a notable theme within the afternoon’s discussions was the distinction between trauma and other forms of emotional impact. The panel was eager to discuss what might be considered ‘normal’ emotional reactions to traumatic subject matter and careful not to fetishise trauma. A balance was struck, then, which educated attendees about trauma they might experience in a professional capacity without suggesting we immediately ‘diagnose’ ourselves as traumatised simply because we work with uncomfortable or sensitive subjects.
Events such as this workshop provide postgraduate researchers with the necessary information and strategies to better care for themselves. This can be a vulnerable time in their research careers – perhaps working with traumatic material on a routine basis for the first time – but it is also the perfect time to become informed about vicarious trauma and learn strategies to offset or even prevent it. Attendees agreed that this event had initiated the process of building a cross-disciplinary network of support for Scottish postgraduates that has the potential to improve the wellbeing for all attendees.
I’m extremely grateful to the organisers of the event: Mairi Hamilton (University of Glasgow), Clare McKeown (Universities of Stirling/Strathclyde), Maja B. Andreasen (Universities of Strathclyde/Stirling) and Jenny Wartnaby (Universities of Glasgow/Strathclyde) – whose various projects sound incredibly exciting! Thank you also to the panel members, Forth Valley Rape Crisis Centre and Rape Crisis Scotland for their invaluable training and advice.
That the event was over-subscribed clearly indicated the need for institutions and AHRC consortia to provide this training on a larger scale – thanks go to the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities who generously supported the event through their Cohort Development Funding.
For support around vicarious trauma and other aspects of PG mental health, SGSAH maintains a valuable list of resources, including a directory of services offered by Scottish HEIs.
Anna Kemball is a PhD candidate in the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, having previously studied at the University of Leeds. Her thesis explores representations of mental health across a range of contemporary indigenous literatures, seeking to bring indigenous literary studies and the critical medical humanities into closer relation.