Feb 25 2020
A Forensic Scientist’s Path to Transforming Stress
Many analysts work in the background helping to develop investigative leads. Too often this also correlates to not receiving the benefits other positions may have to combat stress, vicarious trauma, and burnout. At ISHI 30, Amy Jeanguenat and Cathy MacMillan hosted a roundtable lunch discussion on stress in the forensic industry, coping mechanisms, and resources/research needed to evolve.
A quick look through the post-show survey showed that many were looking for more information on identifying and overcoming vicarious trauma in the forensic science industry, so we asked Amy and Cathy some follow-up questions to help you recognize the signs within yourself and others and to provide resources for those experiencing vicarious trauma.
Amy and Cathy, thank you very much for talking with us.
How did you both become interested in the topics of vicarious trauma and mindfulness?
What was your motivation behind leading the table topic discussion at ISHI?
CATHY: It was four years ago for me. I was dealing with a very difficult post-conviction case, feeling the burden of a large caseload, had personal stress from a divorce, was raising teenagers, and working through a past trauma that I never spoke about. A counselor introduced me to the topic. I really want dialogue around this topic to be more predominant and I reached out to ISHI to see what could be done at their 30th conference. Mental health is so critical in any career and it’s time caseworkers started opening up. Happy caseworkers, happy scientists lead better lives. Carol Bingham at Promega introduced me to Amy and I was happy to see she had been involved in the dialogue of stress, vicarious trauma, burnout as well as strategies to use in the forensic industry. The reason I wanted to bring this topic up at ISHI was one of the main reasons I went into forensics. I wanted to help people. I have witnessed the effects of vicarious trauma in co-workers, family members and of course myself. I felt perhaps the young scientists could learn from my story.
AMY: I was happy Cathy and I were introduced and that she was so vulnerable with me from the start about what led her to learning about vicarious trauma. I hadn’t heard of it either when I initially felt symptoms and just chalked up changes to my own perspectives and the chronic stress I felt as just being part of the job. I felt inadequately supported in my own experiences and looked to other industries that have been more proactive in dealing with tools to combat stress, depression, anxiety and pain. I enrolled in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program which improved my ability to communicate what I was experiencing and provided new tools to use. Although I found little support, I knew I couldn’t be the only one dealing with impact of working in the criminal justice field. I dove into learning as much as I could about resiliency skills to help myself but knew I wanted to be able to pass information along to my colleagues. I have seen over the past couple years that when there are opportunities to connect, such as with the ISHI table discussion or through workshops, it becomes easier for people to open up and seek tools to help themselves.
Why do you think this topic hasn’t been widely discussed previously?
CATHY: In forensics, I feel the culture is just to do the case, keep your number’s up and once you complete the murder or rape you are working on, grab the next one. Culture in criminal justice values stoicism and there can be a reluctance to discuss anything where we may appear weak.
AMY: When I first started telling people I was bringing mindfulness and resilience to forensics I would get funny looks. Some of my first interactions I received responses such as ‘forensics is just a negative space, its always been this way, it will never change;’ ‘ I think you have to be a special person to do forensics, there needs to be a part in your brain you just close everything you see away in; ‘ I’ve been around since the beginning of AFIS, this is just how the field is.’ The biggest take away from these interactions was that education and awareness was needed first. I’m never one to like the response- that is just how things are- so I set out to change that!
Do you have any recommendations for those who are experiencing stress?
AMY & CATHY: There are many ways to mitigate stress, the only way to eradicate stress is to remove the things that cause it. Often times people want to start there, by identifying the cause of stress, blame it and make it someone else’s problem to fix it. However, causes of stress in an organization have deep roots in the culture of the agency or system as a whole. These are not easily fixed things.
No matter your position, you need to start with yourself. When you are your best self as an individual it is easier to help your organization and when the organization is in a good place, it is easier to affect the system. Senior scientists may find it helpful to seek out other projects at work or even take a leave of absence. Looking for other tasks like QC duties, validation, data entry, seeking promotions outside of casework such as supervisory roles could help with the daily stress of casework. It is important to know when to pull yourself out of the lab and off of casework. Evidence based techniques that can move anyone, analysts and management, to a more balanced state include: meditation, gentle movement, mindfulness, gratitude, self-reflection, & compassion practices.
Are there programs or resources available for those experiencing vicarious trauma?
AMY & CATHY: Most State agencies have employee assistance programs (EAP) that can be a good place to start to better understand the resources available through work. An EAP may connect you with a counselor or a peer support system. Your medical doctor may also have ideas for your specific wellness initiative. Finding someone to talk to and connect with is important and it might not be the first counselor or peer supporter that you meet. Although, agencies that have implemented peer support have found value in having employees connect with others who have shared similar experiences and can offer hope. Some organizations have also successfully integrated therapy dogs to force employees to walk away from the desk and take a break.
AMY: One of my goals is to continue to progress the field in this area and I use a combination of my experience working in criminal justice with certifications in ancient wisdom, meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. I merge modern science with ancient wisdom to bring evidence-based techniques to criminal justice professionals to build resilience- the ability to bounce back from stress and trauma a little easier.
Read more about exercises you can do when experiencing stress, incorporating this topic into educational curriculums, and more in the full interview in November’s issue of The ISHI Report.