Last year, Amy Jeanguenat of Mindgen, LLC introduced us to mindfulness for forensic scientists. The workshop was so popular, that Amy has offered to return this year to share how to build mental strength to assist with the stress that working in a lab can bring. In this interview, Amy explains how practicing mindfulness can lengthen tenures for forensic scientists as well as provide coping mechanisms for everyday stress.
What does processing a case entail for forensic scientist? (What steps does an analyst take when processing a sample and how much do they know about a case they’re working on?)
Processing a case for a forensic scientist involves examination of physical evidence, developing a testing strategy, performing laboratory work, analyzing data, summarizing findings in a forensic case report and (when applicable) testifying in court to the findings.
During the course of processing a case an analyst may be exposed to a variety of information from very limited (type of crime, brief case description, request for testing) to very detailed to include crime scene photos, medical reports, detailed case descriptions, police reports, and meetings with investigators to determine a testing strategy. In some jurisdictions forensic examiners may even participate in collection of evidence from a crime scene.
You mention in your workshop description that analysts may be working on potentially thousands of violent cases in a short time frame. Much has been said about how backlogs effects victims, but not much has been said about the impact it’s had on those analyzing the samples. What psychological impact might this have on a DNA analyst?
Working on violent crimes, such as the volume of unsubmitted sexual assault kits, an analyst may read hundreds to thousands of medical reports in just a couple years in an effort to complete the testing. This exposes a person (in a short time frame) to rape culture, cruel situations, and the intentional violence against humans of all ages. Without proper coping mechanisms, the impact of this exposure on top of industry pressures can negatively impact job performance, physical and mental health, sleep patterns, interpersonal relationships, communication, world-views, and the ability to focus.
How common is it for analysts to become affected by the cases that they analyze?
It is common for analysts to become affected by industry specific pressures and stress, whether case specific or over the course of time. Forensic professionals encounter technique criticism, repeated exposure to crime scenes or horrific case details, resource issues, increased workloads, working in an adversarial legal system, handling hazardous materials, and all within a culture where there is zero tolerance for ‘errors’. However, techniques to build resilience can improve a person’s relationship with stress, building a capacity to tame perceived pressures.
What may a person experience if they do not find a way to cope with this level of stress?
Chronic stress can impair the immune system, generate unhealthy behaviors, reduce the ability to think clearly, and lead to unregulated emotions. The effects of stress and vicarious trauma are cumulative, may be permanent, and impact an individual both professionally and personally. Strategies to increase resilience can include mind/body exercises, flipping the script on negative situations, present moment awareness techniques, positive social connections, enhancing strengths, and self-compassion.
Do you know what the average career length is for those who have chosen to work in forensics? Is it possible that not having the proper training to manage stress leads to shorter tenures and higher turnover rates?
High turnover has been a key factor quoted by many crime laboratories to explain high volumes of unworked cases, longer turnaround times, and other setbacks, however, there has been little empirical data published on forensic analyst turnover rates and career lengths. Across other industries, turnover intention has been studied as being correlated to perceived stress and pressure. Another threat besides turnover intention is presenteeism, or continuing to come to work but underperforming due to workload, stress, lack of motivation, exhaustion, or illness. Professionals that have received resilience training, to include mindfulness, have demonstrated a reduction in turnover intention and an increase in job performance.
In your former life you worked as laboratory director and technical leader in a private forensic lab. Did you find that the work took a toll on you and how has practicing mindfulness techniques assisted with this?
There was a series of events that I correlate with what I would consider ‘normal’ stress levels directing a forensic laboratory turning into chronic stress which impacted my health, sleep patterns, relationships and the ability to focus. It wasn’t until I learned about the neurobiology of trauma that I also started to link some of the phenomenon I was experiencing as possibly being related to vicarious trauma from working and reviewing violent crimes.
Since little empirical studies have been performed on forensic scientists, I can only say anecdotally that I know I am not alone as I see similar issues in colleagues in all forensic disciplines. My goal is to raise awareness about the importance of well-being for the forensic professional, and how such an investment can also benefit the crime laboratory overall. I hope to turn what may have been adversity in my life into social support and change for others.
Mindfulness is a tool I enjoy teaching others, as I directly found it enhanced my ability to problem-solve, communicate, respond instead of react, and increased my resilience to stress. Since mindfulness can be performed in the moment and cultivated overtime, anyone can learn it.
Can you offer an exercise that analysts can practice now to help manage their stress? A sort of prelude to the workshop?
During the workshop, attendees will explore factors related to stress and vicarious trauma but also learn a variety of skills to build mental strength. Learning how to work with the body and the mind will be an underlining theme. Connection with breath is one tool that is great to learn as the breath is with us at all times. With every mood and emotion, the breath takes on different qualities. Changing the breath can alter the state of the mind and emotional energy too. Slowing the breath calms the nervous system, is a tool to cultivate self-awareness, and provides a pause to reflect and choose a response. A technique known as 4-7-8 breathing can be performed in the moment or practiced daily to cultivate more effective involuntary breathing patterns.
Through your nose inhale to the count of 4
Hold your breath to the count of 7
Exhale through your mouth to the count of 8
The above method is one breath cycle. Try to repeat the breath cycle several times. If performing the 4-7-8 method is too challenging try starting with intervals of 2-3-4 and working your way up to 4-7-8. Doubling the exhalation allows for deeper breathing to occur to reduce anxiety.
Thanks Amy! We’re looking forward to the workshop on September 23rd!
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