Anna Bennett, Senior Communications Officer
Monday 24 July 2023
This week the Crest Advisory team took part in a workshop on trauma and resilience in research, led by Dr Adrian Grounds. A forensic psychiatrist, Dr Grounds provided a clinical perspective to mental disorders and applied his extensive knowledge on the subject to the daily work of our analysts working across Crest's Consulting and Insights practices. Senior Communications Officer Anna Bennett takes us through what we learnt.
At Crest, most of our research involves interviewing people with first-hand experience of the criminal justice system (CJS). Over the past decade, to understand how the CJS functions and what change is needed, we’ve spoken to police officers, probation staff, social workers, charity support workers, police and crime commissioners and, increasingly, victims and vulnerable people. That last group has included victims of rape and sexual assault, users of domestic abuse services and young people trapped in drug gangs. Interviewing those who have experienced serious trauma is a task that shouldn’t be taken lightly. We want to avoid inflicting harm on the person we’re talking to by revisiting something they find extremely distressing. With that in mind, we began the session by trying to gain a better understanding of what trauma really is.
Dr Grounds explained that, historically, psychiatric interest in the effects of trauma can be traced back to the study of hysteria in the nineteenth century – diagnosed in patients who were suffering physical paralysis with no identifiable physical cause. It wasn’t until the first and second world wars that the effects of shell shock, known today as post-traumatic stress disorder, ignited a renewed interest in the psychological effects of trauma. Today, the field of traumatic disorders is moving away from the stigmatised view of mental illness seen in the past. Trauma is now understood as a psychological response to a terrible experience, sometimes manifesting itself as a memory being replayed through nightmares or flashbacks. The person can become isolated and withdrawn; they may have feelings of anxiety, irritability and guilt. What’s more, trauma doesn’t just affect the person at the centre of it, it can also have an impact on those whose job it is to support them.
The term ‘vicarious trauma’ is used to describe how those who engage with survivors of traumatic incidents are affected by their trauma by witnessing it themselves or regularly hearing it being re-lived. At Crest, that’s something we need to be aware of - for two reasons.
First, we may come across secondary trauma in an interview so we need to be ready to navigate that conversation. As part of our research, we often speak to victim support workers from charities, social work and criminal justice agencies. They have to understand what happened to someone so they can offer them the right care; that frequently means gathering a full and comprehensive account of the traumatic event. Hearing or reading about that sort of information on a regular basis, sometimes even seeing it first hand, can have a serious impact.
Second, we must look after ourselves. We often have to listen to details about traumatic events in an interview, before repeatedly going over the information in order to analyse it in depth. Although the purpose of the research is to effect change, we may still feel powerless and overwhelmed in being unable to directly help someone who has been in a difficult and distressing situation.
So, how do we build resilience to these difficult topics, and in turn, vicarious trauma? While there’s no simple answer, the first step is to be aware of it. Feeling burnt out or dreading work are some of the first signs that you need to step away from the research. At that point, a conversation with a manager might lead to a ‘reset’ and a change in workload; team members should also be available to offer support.
After Dr Grounds’ presentation, we spent an hour discussing our experiences in difficult interviews, reflecting on situations we’ve been in and what we found both challenging and helpful. It quickly became clear that finding support in one another is key to this type of work. Not only is it important to talk about our experiences one-to-one, but also to discuss it as a group. We should critically review our interviews together, suggesting what went well and what could have been approached differently. Beyond that, Dr Grounds said the way we think about interviews could be a real help to mitigate the risk of vicarious trauma. He suggested we approach interviews with an analytical mind. Focusing on the words the participant is using and what they are describing and the meanings these convey can be a tool to help manage challenging interviews. He also, helpfully, reminded us that there is no right way to do an interview; they can be unpredictable and may not always go to plan, but that’s part and parcel of the work and we need to challenge ourselves to stop striving for ‘right’.
Ultimately, we want to keep improving our interview techniques with those who have been traumatised. We need to remember the needs of those on the other end of the line while at the same time looking out for one another, ensuring our research is both comprehensive and marked with kindness.
Dr Adrian Grounds is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Criminology, with a particular research interest in the psychological effects of wrongful imprisonment. Before joining the Institute, Dr Grounds worked at the Maudsley, Bethlem and Broadmoor Hospitals. There, he trained in forensic psychiatry. He has also sat as a Sentence Review Commissioner and Parole Commissioner in Northern Ireland.