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When health research becomes traumatic

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers are leading research that empowers Indigenous women to share their stories of health and wellbeing. But what happens when health researchers relive the trauma of their participants?

Dr Anne-Marie Eades is an Aboriginal woman, registered nurse and health researcher whose paper for Public Health Research & Practice looks at her own experience of vicarious trauma while conducting research. She talks with the Sax Institute about the paper and the best ways to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers out in the field.

Could you tell us about your experiences as a health researcher and what led you to this topic in particular?

I learned about death and dying at a very early age. Three of my siblings died before the age of 30 and another at the age of 39, so as you can imagine, this has had a devastating effect on me and my family in relation to the trauma and grief of losing loved ones.

After working in perioperative settings as a nurse and continuously seeing examples of the disparity in health between Aboriginal people and other Australians, I moved into research with the intention of reducing that disparity.  I went on to do a master’s in nursing, where I had the opportunity to conduct research in Aboriginal communities, exploring issues related to chronic disease management.

In 2011, we experienced death again with my sister dying at the age of 54. This led me to look at the roles and responsibilities Aboriginal women have in their families and how these roles impact on managing their own chronic disease.

How have the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research participants affected you?

As part of my PhD, I conducted interviews with 72 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to explore their experiences of living with chronic disease. Many of these women disclosed compelling stories of death, trauma, domestic violence, and intergenerational incarceration.

I was consistently aware of how privileged I was to be in that position to listen to their stories. As a researcher, you’re constantly aware of the power imbalance when you’re taking all this information from participants. But when I returned home from conducting the research, I felt depressed, withdrawn and emotionally unwell.

I think when you talk about vicarious trauma, it’s a process where your own experiences are negatively transformed through engaging with someone else’s trauma. It was uncomfortable and challenging. But it was also important because I appreciated just how much the women’s stories resonated with my experience. This is also why it is so important that Aboriginal people lead Aboriginal research. I had unique insights and understood how carefully the information would need to be shared.

What helped you deal with or manage the vicarious trauma that you experienced as a result of the research?

I was lucky to be surrounded by people who could support me, and I ended up receiving the support that I needed. But had I not pointed it out to someone – the way I was feeling – I could have gone through this in silence.

I was fortunate to have a supervisor who works in mental health who provided a platform for me to debrief about my experiences once I alerted her to the issue I was facing.  I was provided with information on counselling services and on-line resources in support of people experiencing vicarious trauma. I was also encouraged to maintain my personal self-care and to take time for life-work balance.  

It’s so important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to take control of their own research – what do you think is the best way to provide support for these researchers? 

In safeguarding against vicarious trauma particularly, I think it’s important we ensure that universities and supervisors are adequately prepared and trained to support researchers who are engaging in this space.

We have safety protocols for our participants in case they become distressed during or after interviews, protocols to contact healthcare professionals if we have immediate concerns about participants’ health, and safety protocols for researchers to notify someone before interviews start and when they are complete – for personal safety reasons. We need to have similar safety protocols for ourselves as well. I think policies and procedures within universities and research organisations need to be in place to ensure that people are aware they might be at risk of vicarious trauma, know how to recognise the early signs, and understand the ways to prevent or reduce the likelihood of developing vicarious trauma.

Read Dr Anne-Marie Eades’ full paper here

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