Can you tell us something about your background and why you decided to work in the field of applied trauma psychology?
I have had a very mixed career; I have worked in medical research, as a retail operations director, property development, Head of a counselling service and running my own company. I think that the fact that I have had lots of experience doing different things has been really helpful to me. Although I love research, at heart I am a practitioner and enjoy working with people and organisations to help them to have happy and healthy lives.
I don’t think that I set out to be an applied trauma psychologist – it was just that the work was interesting and I could see that it helped people deal with difficult issues.
Tell us more about applied trauma psychology – what does your work involve and who do you aim to help?
I work with lots of different organisations and kinds of people. My main areas of expertise are in psychological trauma, bullying and harassment and psychological rehabilitation. I have worked with victims of major incidents such as 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings as well as natural disasters, transport deaths, rapes and other crimes. My goal is to help organisations prepare for crisis and disasters by training and preparing their employees and when a crisis occurs to help the organisation to deal with it to limit the damage caused to the workforce. I have developed a number of psychological tools which help people to recover from stress, burnout and psychological trauma.
What experience have you had working with digital forensics professionals?
The first time I worked with digital forensic professionals was around ten years ago. A commercial forensics organisation had taken over some work on Operation Ore and the young forensic examiners were having problems in dealing with the impact of the images they were assessing. I later became involved in supporting other forensic examiners who were working in Eastern Europe where they felt that they were in very threatening working environments with little support. More recently I have become more involved with law enforcement officers working with child abuse. This is a really interesting area of work and I find that the people involved in this work are really dedicated and keen to push the boundaries of their knowledge of computer forensics to the limits.
What are the short and long term effects of working with the kind of disturbing material which digital forensics examiners often encounter in their work?
I think that it is relatively easy to see that some people will never be able to deal with the distressing images, sounds and dialogue that are part of the examiners world. Some people fail within the first few days of being exposed to the material. However, perhaps more difficult is the slow grinding down of the digital examiner’s resilience which can happen over months or years. People who have handled this kind of work may suddenly find that they are unable to deal with it any more. I think that most people have a “shelf-life” for dealing with the most distressing material and need to take a break. The initial reaction to distressing material is the shock and disgust it causes, the fact that people will do things that most of us could never imagine. This is particularly distressing when the victim is a child. The real problems relate to the trauma reactions that this shock can create. The way our brains work is to try to protect us from anything that could cause harm. The common response to a traumatic exposure is to a) try to avoid further exposure b) become hyper alert or aroused to the material or thoughts about the material and c) to have dreams, flashbacks or constant thoughts about the exposure. People can also become irritable, detached and start using “self-medication” (caffeine, alcohol, drugs – prescribed and otherwise) to handle their symptoms. Often relationships suffer as normal loving relationships are affected by the impact of the material.
Many people who have worked in digital forensics for any length of time will know colleagues who have been affected by the material they’ve witnessed, but also others who seem almost immune to its effects. Why do people seem to react so differently?
This is a really interesting area which I am looking at a lot in my research. It is clear that some people are not suited to working in this field and responsible organisations should have processes and procedures to screen their employees prior to their deployment on this kind of work. The reasons for their difficulties can be quite wide, perhaps they have experienced some form of abuse in their past, they may be emotionally sensitive or perhaps they are not good at seeing their work in the right way – i.e. they need to focus on the purpose of viewing material and the information that they need to complete their task rather than on the meaning of the material. I am sometimes concerned about people who appear to be immune to the effects as this can be caused by a psychological condition known as dissociation. This means that they are much less able to pick up information as they are in a numbed state. These are often quite damaged people who tend to reject any suggestion that they may be having difficulties. The problem is that they often take out their distress on others and can have quite chaotic or destructive relationships outside work…