On Difficult Research and Mental Wellbeing

As part of my dissertation research, I carried out two rounds of fieldwork in Colombia, during which my research assistants and I interviewed women active in civil society. Many of these women work very closely with victims of sexual violence and/ or the armed conflict, by providing psycho-social or psycho-legal support or by documenting cases of violence.

colombia-9As I was analyzing my interview data, I got hung up on what two women said about the toll this work takes on the civil society activists. Both of them quit working entirely for a while because they could no longer handle the suffering and the cruelty to which they were constantly exposed; one said she experienced a profound depression.

Lingering over these very direct and honest statements, I was surprised that only two women brought up the negative mental health impacts of doing very challenging work. But then it occurred to me that, of course, this pattern is mirrored in academia. We are largely silent on how research on sensitive and difficult topics affects us as researchers too.

Certainly, there are a few academic discussions the negative effects of researching sensitive issues or on the emotional toll of field work on the researcher. Researchers may also acknowledge their feelings of distress to one another in private or at least in informal conversations (I have certainly taken part in a few). But academic publications generally do not reflect how strongly the researcher can be affected by doing difficult research and how these reactions may have impacted the research process itself, as Inger Skjelsbæk has recently pointed out. A serious engagement with this issue in academia as a whole is lacking.

We are, generally, socialized to think that what matters is what we contribute to the advancement of knowledge, and not what reactions the research process itself evokes in us. It is another dimension of the trend to take the researcher out of the research process, in the pursuit of objectivity. Most surprisingly of all, fieldwork courses and guidelines too are often silent on the potential negative effects of doing difficult research on the researchers themselves. This seems to me to be a mistake.

Working on sensitive issues

Even though I study a dimension of conflict-related sexual violence that generally inspires hope rather than despair – women’s resistance and mobilization in civil society – I have on several occasions had to struggle with the weight of it all. There were the interviews themselves, of course, which sometimes touched upon some grueling details of sexual violence cases, victims speaking about their ordeals and about how hard their activism is to do, but how at the same time they feel they simply have to do it, victims expressing anger because they feel abandoned by the state. And the interviews in which the women we spoke with became visibly upset, sometimes on the verge of tears. These are not easy situations to handle.

Yet it was when I spent hours every day, five days a week, for a month, analyzing the interview data a few months after my return from fieldwork that the subject matter started to get to me in a more intense way. A similar thing had happened already the previous fall, when countless stories about sexual harassment of and violence against women started surfacing under the #MeToo hashtag at the same time that I was reading Surviving Sexual Violence by Liz Kelly. As I mentioned in a previous post, this was a fundamental turning point in my feminist awareness. But this was primarily because I started realizing the pervasiveness of violence against and the devaluation of women, regardless of where you live in the world. It was because I started remembering #MeToo moments of my own, some of which I had all but forgotten about. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, and would often return home in the evening feeling depressed.

One factor that amplified my poor mental wellbeing in this particular episode is, for lack of a better word, substantive isolation. I have wonderful supervisors who have always had an open ear for me, whether I was in the department or away on fieldwork. I also colombia-43have great colleagues in the department, and they are helpful with all sorts of daily struggles one encounters as a PhD student. But this wasn’t something I wanted to burden them with. For one thing, it was not clear how they could have helped. In my department, I am alone in working on issues of violence and armed conflict. This means that many of my experiences are not easily relatable for others. More importantly, however, it felt too personal and intimate to talk about these emotions with others who might not be comfortable being put in that situation.

The challenges of fieldwork

Then there is the issue of fieldwork. Even though some of the interviews, and especially those with women who were themselves victims of sexual violence, were tough, I was less affected by the content of my research while in Colombia than on several occasions back home in my office. The excitement of traveling to different places in Colombia, speaking to so many fascinating and courageous women, and collecting so much data kept me on my toes. My three-month fieldwork stay in 2018 was incredibly productive. When I was not doing interviews, I spent my time writing field notes, working on the introductory chapter to my dissertation, co-supervising a master’s student and working on other projects here and there. Only when I had returned to Gothenburg did I realize how physically and mentally exhausting the fieldwork trip had been. For two months I was absolutely drained, unable to focus and got very little work done.

Some of this was certainly due to all the interviews and impressions of my field research that my mind was still processing. But a fellow researcher suggested that another factor might also have been at play: being in an unfamiliar context with high rates of crime and violence keeps you always super alert, but somehow also tense and looking over your shoulder. In hindsight, I think this is exactly right. I often felt a general sense of anxiety about my safety, nothing I could have specifically pinpointed but reinforced by the constant warnings by locals, and that probably had a more profound effect on my mental health during fieldwork than my research itself. If you didn’t grow up in an unsafe environment, you don’t have an ingrained sense of being constantly vigilant. Having to adopt this sense for an extended period of time can be stressful and exhausting, but you won’t realize how much so, until you can finally relax.

Yet, there was one thing that helped me and that made the fieldwork experience both pleasant and effective: peer support. I was lucky enough to meet a few other researchers in Bogotá. And this was one of the things I appreciated most while away on fieldwork: being able to have an exchange with people who are in a similar situation. You share the experience of being foreigners in an unfamiliar environment, sometimes you feel isolated and alone, you may face linguistic barriers, there are the logistical but also the psychological challenges of doing fieldwork, and you’re trying to navigate the sometimes unpredictable geography of insecurity in Bogotá (one street may be generally safe, but the next one is not, and it’s not always clear which is which).

There is something about such a mutual experience of being immersed in an unfamiliar und sometimes unpredictable setting that makes you comfortable sharing things with colombia-22people you barely know. I distinctly remember sitting in a quaint café close to the university in Bogotá with another researcher I had only just met, and we were discussing some of the challenges we faced. And while neither could offer the other advice or solutions, it was immensely reassuring to realize that I was not alone. That it is natural and OK to feel anxious about some dimensions of fieldwork, even if you’re not in a full-on war zone. That it’s part of the experience. This is therefore my best advice for people going into the field, especially for the first time, whether you work on sensitive issues (or not): get in touch with other researchers. They’re an important resource, intellectually and emotionally. And this applies also to the time prior to and after fieldwork.

Local research assistants can also obviously help a lot with navigating the local context and providing both situational and logistical information. I was extremely lucky to have the company of wonderful research assistants during both of my research stays in Colombia, which definitely reduced my anxiety levels. But this, of course, is not a luxury available to everybody.

To sum up

What I have learned from my experiences of studying sensitive issues and doing research in a conflict-affected setting:

  1. Many researchers experience adverse reactions, whether these are psychological reactions to their research content or feelings of diffuse and generalized anxiety about the fieldwork experience (or some combination of both). These can hit in unexpected ways and at unexpected times, and they can negatively impact the researcher’s well-being for an extended period of time. It is important to normalize such reactions and responses because it reassures researchers, especially graduate students and newbies, that these reactions are normal, that it is OK to articulate them, and that it is OK to seek help. They are legitimate reactions, even if you think that the situation you are in at that particular moment does not really warrant this kind of reaction. They may simply have been building up over a long time.
  2. We should talk about these reactions and responses not only with colleagues in private conversations, although this can – as discussed – be an important tool to mitigate them. It is important also to make these issues the subject of open and public conversations in the various disciplines where they are likely to arise (e.g. political science, anthropology, sociology, psychology…). My own discipline of political science has probably done the least work in this area, and this is, in my view, a substantial oversight. I remember a time when I was frantically looking for useful texts or tips and found as good as nothing (and only yesterday, I came across this impressive effort in anthropology that you should check out).
  3. There are several steps to begin remedying this situation. The question of how researching sensitive issues or doing research in conflict-affected or fragile countries affects the researcher could be incorporated into fieldwork courses and guidelines in a more systematic and comprehensive way. Methodological, logistical, ethical and security issues (also often not addressed well enough!) are all important, but each one of these can be compromised by poor mental wellbeing. Fieldwork courses are few and far between generally, even – based on what I’ve heard – in departments where fieldwork is quite common, so there is a general need to increase provision. The issue of difficult research and mental wellbeing could also be the subject of workshops at conferences or of special issues in journals in order to kick off a broader dialogue in affected disciplines.
  4. There seems to be a need for improved institutional responses to researchers having negative psychological responses to their research on sensitive issues. Especially in departments with a large number of researchers working on issues such as armed conflict, violence or child abuse, it would be useful to provide researchers with a designated person they can contact if it becomes too much. One consideration here is that researchers should be able to access available services in confidence, i.e. without having to go through their department’s leadership or administration, unless they wish to do so.
  5. There is also a need for departments to provide institutional resources for researchers prior to, during and after fieldwork, especially in conflict-affected or unsafe contexts. This should encompass things related to physical security while abroad (e.g. development of an emergency plan, having emergency contacts set up, information on procedures such as registering with the embassy or consulate while abroad) and mental wellbeing. It would be particularly useful to have a designated person for researchers to contact at their home institution also while they are in the field.

To conclude, open and honest dialogue about how researchers can be negatively affected by doing “difficult” research can provide reassurance to and reduce anxiety for other researchers, especially graduate students and those new to fieldwork, who are experiencing such reactions. It is also an important step towards decreasing the stigma associated with reaching out and seeking help – which based on personal experience and conversations I have had with others is something of a problem in academia. In the cut-throat environment that academia sometimes is, none of us wants to be perceived as whiny, fragile or difficult. But speaking openly about the challenges we face is important to identify those areas in which institutional and discipline-wide responses could be improved.

Disclaimer: In this post, I certainly speak from a position of privilege as a white, able-bodied woman employed as a PhD candidate with a real salary in a country with a high standard of living. I am sure that those researching traumatic experiences much more closely than I have and those carrying out their research under more precarious circumstances have experiences quite distinct from mine.


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