International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

President's Message - Academia and Activism: A Challenge for ISTSS

Posted 28 May 2013 in StressPoints by Karestan C. Koenen, PhD

I recently attended a conference where I was asked to identify the work in traumatic stress that had most influenced me. The answer came easily. It was Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. It was the first book I read that effectively combined the communication of science with a call to action. It lead me to believe that a career in traumatic stress would enable me to bring together the academic and activist sides of myself that were often, even then, at odds with each other.   

Not long after I moved to Boston to start Boston University’s doctoral program in clinical psychology, I wrote to Dr. Herman in care of her publisher. I included my phone number in the letter and asked for a meeting with her. Those were the days before everyone communicated via email, used Google or had smart phones. I actually hand wrote the letter! I vividly remember coming home one day in early September and seeing the message light blinking on my answering machine. I pushed the play button with great anticipation and heard, “Karestan, this is Judy Herman . . . .” She went on to say that she was starting a research group at the Victims of Violence Program and she invited me to attend. My career in traumatic stress research had begun!

I attended my first ISTSS annual meeting in 1995. What attracted me to ISTSS initially was the same combination I found in Trauma and Recovery, the exciting combination of rigorous science and passionate activism brought together to improve the lives of persons who had been impacted by trauma. 

The academic science of traumatic stress has advanced enormously since I entered the field in the mid-90s.  Evidence of this is found in both the ISTSS annual meeting and its Journal of Traumatic Stress. Submissions increase every year. The scientific rigor improves. The impact factor of the Journal of Traumatic Stress continues to rise even as additional trauma-focused journals are introduced. Moreover, traumatic stress research is no longer ghettoized. Rather, it is presented at every major mental health conference. PTSD research is featured in general medical journals including JAMA and in all the top psychiatric and psychology journals. PTSD was even highlighted in President Obama’s new BRAIN initiative. Traumatic stress research has arrived.

The next challenge for ISTSS is what to do with our relatively recently established credibility in academic science.  We have already, in fact, set a goal for ourselves in this regard. The fourth goal of the ISTSS strategic plan is the Promotion of Science and Clinical Practice:

‘ISTSS engages its members in advancing traumatic stress science and uses research to improve prevention, and clinical care, promote resilience and inform public education and public policy.’

Only last year, we established the position of Social Networking Administrator. Namik Kirlic has worked over the past year to reinvigorate our presence on Facebook, initiate and build a Twitter feed (@ISTSSnews) and begin an ISTSS members group in LinkdedIn. Recently, the Executive Committee set the goal of posting new content across social media, including our web page, at least three times a week. This will take input from members to sustain – so send suggestions to @ISTSSnews, like us on Facebook and stay tuned to how you can participate in helping ISTSS improve its communication related to the science and practice of traumatic stress. 

In order to maintain the unique combination of rigorous science and passionate activism that attracted me and many others to ISTSS initially, the society needs to move beyond communication to use our science to ‘improve,’ ‘promote’ and ‘inform’ consistent with Goal #4 of our strategic plan. Joining the Global Collaboration on Child Abuse and Neglect is one way ISTSS is working to meet this goal. But we can do more. 

Academia and activism are uneasy bedfellows. I have experienced this personally, as I’ve straddled a federally funded research-focused career at Harvard and now Columbia while working on issues related to sexual violence. I often feel that my careful, measured academic self does not sit comfortably with the more direct, passionate activist self.  However, I have learned that my credibility as an academic makes me more effective as an activist. Whether I am speaking to U.S. Congressional staff or journalists, they are persuaded by my activism because it is backed by scientific credibility. 

I believe the same is true for ISTSS. The society’s foundation in rigorous traumatic stress science positions us to be an effective force for change. Our founders had a vision that combined the pursuit of rigorous science with as ardent desire to ameliorate the adverse consequences of traumatic stress around the world. We owe it to them, and to the trauma survivors around the world we serve, to not lose sight of that vision.