International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

ISTSS Membership Survey Examines Vicarious Traumatization in Researchers and Clinicians

Posted 1 December 2005 in StressPoints by Shawn M. Kennedy and Elana Newman, Tulsa, Oklahoma

ISTSS, as a multidisciplinary society, is designed to bring together trauma specialists of many fields. While ISTSS strives to bridge gaps between its researchers and practitioners, occasionally debates ensue within subgroups of the society about fundamental differences in ways of acquiring and applying knowledge, goals and interactions with trauma survivors. Most centrally, some scientists are accused of not appreciating the emotional complexity involved in empathically treating and bearing witness to clients’ trauma.

Given this perception, we were curious to determine if, in fact, trauma-focused researchers and clinicians differed in the degree of vicarious traumatization they experienced. Pearlman & Saakvitne (1995) define vicarious traumatization as the transformation of beliefs about one’s self or the world as a result of empathic engagement with another person’s traumatic material. Although it is well documented that clinicians experience vicarious traumatization (Figley, 1995; Pearlman & Mac Ian, 1995), only a few case studies document that researchers and research teams who bear witness to the pain of another person’s trauma also can be adversely affected by the work (i.e., Urquiza, Wyatt, & Goodlin-Jones, 1991; Campbell, 2002).

In 2003, we conducted an ISTSS online membership survey by sending an e-mail request to 1,785 members who listed an e-mail address in the ISTSS public membership directory. We sought to determine if there were differences between researchers and clinicians in their experience of vicarious trauma. Measures used included the Modified Stressors Survey (MSS; Newman & Willard, 1996), PTSD Checklist Civilian Version (PCL-C; Weathers, Litz, Herman, Haska, & Keane, 1993), Traumatic Stress Institute Belief Scale Revision N (TSI; Pearlman, 1996), Personal Resource Questionnaire 2000 (PRQ2000; Weinert, in press) and Reactions to Research Participation Questionnaire Revised (RRPQ-R; Newman, Willard, Sinclair, & Kaloupek, 2001).

Respondents were 153 female ISTSS members, yielding a response rate of 8.5 percent. Due to the small number of male respondents, males were excluded from analyses in order to obtain a more homogenous sample. We hypothesized that there would be statistically significant differences between researchers’ and clinicians’ scores on the TSI, a measure of disruption of beliefs that may be impacted by trauma or vicarious trauma. However, the results of our survey indicated that female members of ISTSS who worked primarily as clinicians, and female members who worked primarily as researchers, showed no statistically significant differences in the amount of self-reported vicarious traumatization they experienced (F=1.57, ns). We discovered that, unlike popularly held beliefs, female researchers and clinicians are more similar than different with respect to the experience of change caused by empathic engagement with survivors.

While our survey had its limitations (i.e., poor response rate, small female-only sample, failure to account for work-related trauma exposure), we believe the results are an important first step in: a) examining vicarious traumatization in both researchers and clinicians; and b) addressing issues regarding the scientist-practitioner gap with respect to empathic engagement with survivors.

In an attempt to replicate these findings, we believe future research with a more representative sample on researchers’ and clinicians’ vicarious traumatization is warranted. Also, incorporating measures of the extent of secondary trauma exposure at work and personal trauma history are warranted, as they may confound findings. If replicated, our results suggest female researchers are more similar than different from female clinicians when empathic engagement occurs, thus suggesting the need to address vicarious traumatization when training, supervising and conducting trauma-focused research.

Until future research can be carried out, we suggest that researchers err on the side of caution by addressing vicarious traumatization and teaching self-care techniques that have been shown to be helpful for clinicians (Saakvitne & Pearlman, 1996) when conducting research in the area of traumatic stress studies.

Shawn M. Kennedy received his master’s degree at the University of Tulsa; Elana Newman is an associate professor at the University of Tulsa.


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