The Importance of Trauma-Informed Approaches in Research on Displaced and Vulnerable Groups
Diyala Darouiche, Graduate Assistant, Institute of Migration Studies
Taking into account the unique historical, social, political and economic contexts of displaced communities, a Trauma-Informed (TI) approach focuses on understanding and addressing the psychological, social and emotional impacts of trauma on displaced individuals. Due to the multiple challenges that displaced populations face, such as exploitation in various forms, persecution and loss, research conducted with these vulnerable groups must adopt a TI framework throughout the process to ensure physical, mental and emotional safety. As such, complementary to the previous article in this series written on the most effective ways to conduct TI interviews with displaced communities dealing with trauma in case management and investigative settings, this article focuses on the process of implementing a TI approach in research more specifically. Additionally, it highlights the impact of trauma research in terms of re-traumatization and vicarious trauma while emphasizing the importance of utilizing TI frameworks in research with vulnerable groups.
The Importance of a Trauma-Informed Approach
In the process of conducting research on sensitive topics related to trauma, a TI approach has increasingly been recognized as essential, particularly when working with displaced communities. This approach acknowledges the impact of trauma on individuals and the potential for re-traumatization during trauma research. It emphasizes safety, autonomy, empowerment and collaboration, aiming to prevent any form of harm or re-traumatization for those involved. By recognizing the profound impact of trauma and integrating that knowledge into the research process, researchers can create a safe and supportive environment for displaced individuals. Moreover, implementing trauma-informed practices ensures ethical and sensitive research procedures, ultimately enhancing the validity and reliability of research data. Therefore, researchers are encouraged to conceptualize their practices within a trauma-informed framework to guarantee the quality and effectiveness of their work, particularly when working with vulnerable groups.
How Does a Trauma-Informed Approach Look Like in Application?
A TI framework considers multiple factors in the process of conducting research with vulnerable groups, which involve the recruitment of participants, design of the study, data collection and analysis procedures.
To begin with, researchers may face many challenges in recruiting participants for studies on sensitive subjects, particularly when working with vulnerable groups who face forced displacement, loss, inadequate access to basic resources, lack of social support systems, exposure to violence and exploitation and the prolonged uncertainty of their situation. Therefore, when conducting interviews to gather victims’ experiences after trauma, it becomes crucial for researchers to carefully consider the mental and emotional state of potential participants. This consideration arises from the understanding that individuals affected by trauma may be in a vulnerable state and prone to making uninformed decisions regarding their participation in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events. In the case of displaced communities, it becomes even more essential to acknowledge the potential challenges and sensitivities related to recruitment. Researchers must prioritize the participants’ agency and autonomy by considering the timing of data collection. This may involve the conscientious decision to postpone data collection until participants are in a relatively stable state of mind, enabling them to make informed choices regarding their involvement in the research. By doing so, researchers demonstrate a TI approach that prioritizes the well-being and decision-making capacity of displaced individuals affected by trauma. A TI approach to recruitment involves recognizing the impact of trauma and the consideration of postponing data collection until participants are in a more stable state of mind to properly exercise choice. This ensures that the researchers consider the participants’ sense of agency and autonomy.
Additionally, when working with displaced communities, researchers should take into account the sensitivity of trauma in the process of establishing the study’s design. It is highly recommended that researchers engage in co-designing aims and questions with participants whenever possible, as it is a valuable approach for embedding TI principles in all aspects of a study. Co-designing ensures that researchers consider the necessary and unnecessary questions required to ask about traumatic events while ensuring the use of clear, non-deceptive and non-triggering language. This is crucial in the context of displaced communities; researchers must avoid vague and triggering language during the study’s design phase. Moreover, co-designing allows for the development of distress management protocols that provide adequate support to participants throughout the research process. In this way, by employing clear and sensitive language, researchers empower participants to make well-informed decisions about their participation. Furthermore, this approach enables researchers to account for factors that may trigger participants and elicit more accurate and reliable results. Most importantly, researchers create a research environment that respects the displaced individuals’ experiences, promotes their well-being and ensures the generation of meaningful and accurate findings.
Methods of Data Collection
Another critical part of the research involves the data collection methods used, often including qualitative interviews between researchers and participants. Considering the potential distress and re-traumatization that survivors may experience during data collection, researchers need to create an atmosphere of respect and safety. In the process of conducting interviews, the TI approach provides necessary guidelines for what should be done before, during and after an interview. Prior to the interview, it is crucial for researchers to provide participants with comprehensive information about what to expect during the interview process. This includes discussing approaches to managing distress and offering participants the autonomy to withdraw from the study at any time without repercussions. Establishing clear boundaries and ensuring informed consent is essential to maintaining a safe and respectful environment. During the interview, the interviewer should be attuned to cues of discomfort or distress exhibited by participants. It is important to respond empathetically and appropriately, providing support and reassurance throughout the conversation. Narrating transitions between sections of the interview can help participants navigate the discussion and maintain a sense of control. Additionally, offering grounding strategies, such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness techniques, can help participants regulate their emotions during the interview. After the interview, researchers should allocate sufficient time for participants to share any additional thoughts or concerns they may have. It is important to remind participants of their ability to contact the interviewer if they require further support or have any questions or reflections after the interview. Providing participants with contact information for psychological service providers or support organizations can also be helpful, as it enables them to seek professional assistance if they feel the need to speak about their experiences.
Finally, the process of analyzing data should not be neglected. When analyzing and sharing the data, researchers should look at the data from various angles and involve different sectors in the analysis. Most importantly, researchers should prioritize the voices of the participants and make sure the findings are easily accessible to the communities involved in the study. Moreover, data sharing in research can pose risks to participant privacy and confidentiality. Strategies for anonymizing data, such as removing identifying information or using de-identification methods, may not always be effective, especially in relational or qualitative research because stakeholders with ill intent may attempt to access and breach confidentiality. Therefore, TI consent forms and data management plans must detail how researchers will protect participants’ safety, privacy and confidentiality if they intend to share and archive data. As such, consent forms should be reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and should clearly explain the researcher’s obligations and intent to share data. Participants should also be given the opportunity to decide how much and what parts of their data they agree to share, as well as how their data can be shared.
By incorporating these trauma-informed practices, researchers can foster an environment of respect, safety and support for displaced individuals participating in the study. This approach acknowledges the potential challenges and vulnerabilities associated with discussing traumatic experiences and prioritizes the well-being and agency of participants throughout the research process.
Being Trauma-Informed in Remote Settings
The principles of the trauma-informed approach can also be used in remote settings. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers had to rely on phone and online interviews instead of traditional methods. Although challenging, it is possible to conduct phone interviews in a trauma-informed way. This involves making certain that participants feel safe, supported and empowered during the research process by following principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice and agency, collaboration and empowerment. To achieve this, scholars suggest starting each interview with a check-in to allow participants to share any concerns. Establishing rapport is also important because it involves actively listening, showing empathy and acknowledging participants’ experiences and emotions. Moreover, participants should be provided with information about the study and interview process, including their rights as participants. During the interview, they should be given the choice to decline certain questions they are uncomfortable with. Open-ended questions should be used to allow participants to share their experiences in their own words and at their own pace. Finally, emotional support and resources should be provided if needed just as there would be in an in-person interview.
Nonetheless, the process of remote interviewing is a lot more complex, particularly in the case of displaced communities. There were challenges that researchers faced when conducting interviews with vulnerable groups during COVID-19. Although remote interview techniques are a viable methodological adjustment, traditional face-to-face interviewing is generally preferred by researchers. On one end, remote interviews can facilitate access to participants, reduce the costs of travel and ensure the safety and anonymity of participants. Moreover, vulnerable groups may feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics in the privacy of their own spaces. However, it is important to acknowledge the potential limitations, including technological barriers, language difficulties and challenges in building trust and rapport through nonverbal communication cues in remote methods. In adapting to the remote setting for qualitative interviews with displaced groups, several methodological adjustments need to be implemented. To begin with, informed consent needs to be obtained by providing participants with comprehensive information about the study and securing their explicit consent through electronic means. Not to mention, technological considerations need to be considered, including the selection of appropriate communication platforms, and ensuring both researchers and participants had the necessary equipment for smooth interviews. Most importantly, language differences need to be addressed using interpreters, either present during the interview or via video calls for consecutive interpretation. To build rapport in remote settings, albeit challenging, efforts can be made to create a safe and comfortable environment, emphasizing the voluntary nature of participation and assuring confidentiality. In light of that, to overcome the limits of nonverbal cues in remote interviews, researchers can adopt techniques by attentively listening to participants’ tone of voice, pauses and verbal expressions. In that sense, participants can be encouraged to express emotions through alternative means like drawings or written reflections. This allows researchers to aim to overcome the limitations of remote interviews while upholding the ethical standards of qualitative research. Thus, even though remote interviewing presents its own challenges, researchers can overcome them in a variety of ways and ensure the conduct of a TI approach in remote settings.
The Impact of Trauma Research
Most individuals assume that trauma research has a negative impact on displaced individuals, and research has shown that trauma can impact the tendency to engage in research for fear of re-traumatization. This is mainly due to the fear of recounting personal stories and experiences that are sensitive to the participants involved. However, while trauma research may negatively impact vulnerable groups, research shows that participants seem to associate a high degree of benefit from being involved in it. One main benefit involves a sense of empowerment and control among participants over their experiences, as well as an opportunity to share their stories and connect with others who have had similar experiences, let alone that participants seem to attach great benefits to participating in trauma research, given that they feel they are contributing to the development of more thorough understandings and more effective treatments for trauma. Ultimately, participants attach great benefits due to the potential virtue their participation offers to the larger community. Many displaced groups get access to resources and support during the research process they might not otherwise have had. Interestingly, even though trauma-focused research can have negative impacts on well-being, particularly in terms of re-traumatization, research shows that the amount of distress experienced is minimal and does not appear to be lasting. Contrary to the beliefs of the IRB and the research community, studies show that individuals do not seem to be negatively affected by participation as much as most individuals assume, and benefits may outweigh potential risks. Therefore, while the risk of re-traumatization is legitimate in trauma research, scholars point out the importance of emphasizing less on how to conduct research and focusing more on the agency of the participant in the process.
While there are potential benefits for participants, research has shown the negative psychological consequences of trauma research on researchers themselves. Researching trauma is a highly emotional experience, and the indirect witness of trauma can result in vicarious trauma. In simple terms, vicarious trauma is the process of internal changes occurring in the researcher due to their empathetic interaction with survivor clients and their experiences of trauma. In other words, vicarious trauma means getting psychologically injured through the injuries of your clients/interviewees.
During the conduct of qualitative analysis, the researcher must engage with the data in a deep and immersive way, and this process can lead to vicarious traumatization if not actively debriefed and reflected upon. Some researchers suggest that the symptoms they observed are indicative of secondary traumatic stress, such as nightmares, fear, anger, irritability, intrusive thoughts, and difficulty concentrating. Others note that the affected individuals experience a shift in their perception of the world, which is more consistent with vicarious trauma. These researchers describe how their worldview has been altered by their knowledge of the magnitude of harm and suffering caused by traumatic experiences. Therefore, in a trauma-informed research approach, it is essential to prioritize the researcher’s well-being, particularly for qualitative researchers who often engage with traumatic material throughout all stages of a study. Through a TI approach, researchers are motivated to engage in a process of debriefing and self-reflection to identify and regulate emotional responses after their exposure to traumatic material. Therefore, it is essential to guarantee the safety of researchers by providing them with resources on the effect of trauma and techniques to manage its impact effectively.
In short, while it is widely recognized that the process of conducting research is seldom done in perfect conditions, a TI approach is nevertheless necessary. Furthermore, while research highlights the potential benefits of trauma-focused research participation, it must be balanced against the risks of re-traumatization and experiences of vicarious trauma. As such, researchers must understand how trauma impacts displaced individuals’ experiences and carefully incorporate this understanding into their research design, data collection, and analysis. In this way, a trauma-informed approach in research aims to protect the well-being of participants, improve the quality of data, maintain ethical research practices, and generate more precise, valid, and reliable results. If trauma research is conducted with sensitivity and respect for participants’ agency and well-being, trauma-focused research has the potential to yield important benefits for vulnerable communities.
This is the last article of the IMS blog series on ‘Trauma, GBV and Refugeehood’ To learn more about the series, please contact Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ms. Dana Azzeh at email@example.com.
To read the previous articles of the GBV Series:
Living in Fear After the “Beast” Is Gone: Navigating GBV, Survival and Trauma in Asylum Settings | News | The LAU School of Arts and Sciences
Don’t Second-Victimize Me: Interviewing GBV Survivors from Displaced Communities Using Trauma-Informed Techniques | News | The LAU School of Arts and Sciences