International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Past President's Column

Posted 1 July 2001 in StressPoints by Charles R. Figley

Editor's note:
This is the first in a series of columns written by ISTSS past presidents, done with the hope of linking the society's past and future. Keeping a historical perspective on the field of trauma is important, and we hope that these columns will keep issues alive and present in members' minds. Past presidents will comment on their view of the field and the society during their terms of office and will discuss achievements and challenges, relating how past issues may affect the society or field now.

Charles R. Figley, PhD, was the founding president of the society, serving his term from 1985-1987. Figley is a professor at Florida State University and director of the Traumatology Institute International. He also is editor of Traumatology, an international journal, and series editor for the Trauma and Loss Book Series and Psychosocial Stress Book Series.

I served as the founding president of the society (initially called STSS) for the first two years after its formation (1985-1987). These were interesting times. PTSD had existed as a diagnosis for only five years. It was three years before the Journal of Traumatic Stress would be published. There was a passion for championing the causes of the traumatized.

Late in 1982, I wrote a letter to a select group of colleagues who had contributed to the growing literature in the field of traumatology, and I proposed forming a society and a journal. The letter, in part, read:

"I believe that an organization, tentatively titled the Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, would be a useful contribution. Moreover, that the central purpose of this society would be to sponsor a scholarly publication.... Such a journal would publish important advancements in the field of traumatic and posttraumatic stress. A distinguished editorial board is already in place in connection with the book I am editing, with the same primary title.... How appropriate is such a society and journal, in particular, and the emergence of a separate field of traumatic or posttraumatic stress in general?" (Figley, 1986).

The response to my question was swift and positive. My colleagues agreed that the society was a means to establish and maintain the Journal of Traumatic Stress. We agreed that both the society and the journal were needed. During the following two years, I completed several books (McCubbin & Figley, 1983; Figley & McCubbin, 1983; Figley, 1985) and studied how other scholarly organizations were structured.

In February 1985, I asked a select group of colleagues to join me for a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C. The purpose of this March 2 meeting was to establish the Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, elect the initial slate of officers and plan its first conference. The initial draft of the society bylaws was approved, and the first conference was commissioned for Atlanta. Those who attended comprised most of the society's founding board of directors.

The board members included Ann Burgess (vice president), Yael Danieli, Charles Figley (president), Bernard Mazel, Robert Rich (secretary/treasurer) and Marlene Young. Scott Sheely was selected as the executive director.

The purpose of the society was "to advance knowledge about the immediate and long-term human consequences of extraordinarily stressful events and to promote effective methods of preventing or ameliorating the unwanted consequences." The objectives of the organization were to recognize achievement in knowledge production; disseminate this knowledge through face-to-face contact with colleagues; and make this information available through other knowledge transfer media, especially print media.

A "society" connotes a learned group of like-minded colleagues. Traumatic stress studies, now known as traumatology, is and was the "investigation and application of knowledge about the immediate and long-term consequences of highly stressful events and the factors, which affect those consequences" (Figley, 1986).

Those who attended the society's initial conference were mobilized not only by science but also by social consciousness. The future U.S. Senator Max Cleland presented the first keynote address. Consistent with his book, Strong in the Broken Places, Cleland recognized the many traumatized groups represented in the international audience: victim advocates, family-violence and battered-women counselors, child-protection advocates, veteran counselors, grief counselors, police psychologists, emergency medical specialists and academic researchers.

In the 16 years since that first meeting of the membership, the society has emerged as a major international organization. This inaugural past-president's column, and those to follow, will document the many achievements of the society. At the same time, the society has carefully nurtured and protected the editorial independence and scholarship of the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the major reason why the society was established.

The passion for championing the causes of the traumatized is a bit less passionate these days. The need for legitimacy as a field and the demands of a dispassionate science must somehow be balanced with the challenges practitioners and victim advocates see every day. I am confident that the society will prevail and that its members will seek and secure the balance needed.

Figley, C.R. (Ed) (1985). Trauma and Its Wake: The Study and Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. NY: Brunner/Mazel.
Figley, C.R. (1986). History. StressPoints 1(1), 2.
Figley, C.R. and McCubbin, M.I. (Eds.) (1983). Stress and the Family, Volume II: "Coping with Catastrophe." NY: Brunner/Mazel.
McCubbin, H.I. and Figley, C.R. (Eds) (1983). Stress and the Family, Volume I: "Coping with Normative Transitions." NY: Brunner/Mazel.