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.
Just a note about black humour – unless people are psychopaths, we have all have been programmed to respond to abuse, trauma, bestiality, executions etc. with disgust and distress. Sometimes we will respond to bizarre or unexpected occurrences with laughter as this is a common and often healthy way to distance oneself from the distress. Black humour can be helpful but only if it is within a team who understand that the humour is a defence mechanism and not related to the experience of the victims.
How important is workplace culture in minimizing the effect of disturbing material on examiners?
It is my view that organisational culture is really important in protecting forensic examiners. This is a highly skilled role which requires people to be extremely detail conscious and also imaginative in identifying hidden forensic information. Teams need to work together, recognising that every now and then an examiner will need to take time out. There needs to be time to chat, enjoy each other’s company and show some consideration for how people are coping. Although there is a tendency for Law Enforcement organisations to be authoritarian in culture, for effective working it is very important that there is a more open and consultative leadership style for people working in forensics. The nature of the people who are good at this kind of work is to be imaginative and creative in their thinking and these talents need to be cultivated in a supportive environment.
What can employers do to protect their employees and, broadly speaking, do employers take this aspect of their responsibilities seriously?
I have done a lot of work in this area and have put together some guidance for ACPO which I think should be the industry standard. Briefly this requires everyone to be screened prior to undertaking this work, to have induction training in how to deal with the abusive or distressing material, to have regular screening (at least every six months) and to have counselling or trauma therapy available for those who need some extra support. I also think that wherever possible there should be some rotation of duties and built in rest breaks.
What strategies can individual examiners use to reduce the risk of being traumatised by the material they encounter?
I have found that the first thing that examiners should ask themselves is why they are doing this work. Forensic examination of fraud is not generally emotionally demanding but forensic examinations which deal with abuse, torture, executions and other similar areas create an assault on ethical and moral codes. Anyone working in forensics needs to know why they are doing this work. This may be to catch the wrong doer or perhaps to protect the victims. Knowing the purpose of your work allows you to justify the fact that you are dealing with what may be horrendous material: “I don’t like having to see children raped or people mutilated and killed but my work is helping to catch criminals and prevent this happening to other people”. As long as you believe in the purpose most people will be able to withstand the stress of the role. Clearly, you will need skills in identifying evidence to make this a realistic purpose.
What should someone do if they think they're being negatively affected?
I am always pleased when someone comes to me to tell me that they are experiencing problems. Often the problems are things like they are becoming overly cautious with their children or have been shocked by a reaction to a situation. It is really important to have access to a psychologist who is familiar with this kind of work and to talk through the techniques and tactics that can be used to get rid of negative thoughts, responses or flashbacks to images or the pictures created in our own imagination.
Is there a macho culture which prevents people from talking about these issues or seeking help?
Normally I do not like support to be mandatory, but after many years in this work I have found out that making screening and support mandatory is the only way that it will be effective. I generally see people every six months, they know me and know that I am not going to get upset or shocked by anything that they tell me. I am interested in them as people and enjoy talking to them. I have had some of the most macho men and women talking to me about their innermost fears and dreads and then being able to go away with these problems resolved. What is important is that my services are confidential, respectful and relevant. What is the point of being macho and finding that you have no close relationships at home and your sex life is non-existent?
Have you noticed any trends in the work you've done with DF examiners?
I am really interested in finding out how interested the examiners themselves are in understanding trauma psychology. I think that making the topic relevant and interesting has given the people I work with the knowledge and confidence to understand themselves better. If they understand how they think and respond then they can be more effective in their work which is good for everyone.
How can readers find out more about your work and opportunities for training in this area?
I have written two books about my work in dealing with traumatic stress where there is more information on the approach I have taken. I am currently developing training for team leaders, counsellors and others which will enable them to gain a qualification in Applied Trauma Psychology which can be related to Computer Forensics. Further information is available on my website at www.noreentehrani.com.
Finally, we've talked about what other people can do to manage the stress of the workplace but what's your strategy? How do you relax and unwind when you're not working?
Firstly I am fortunate in that I absolutely love my work. I find that working with people on solving their problems is the best job in the world.
I take keeping fit and healthy seriously, visiting the gym regularly, and have lots of social activities. My husband keeps me on track. Having three young grandchildren is wonderful as to them I am just Grandma who comes over to play. What could be better than that?
Noreen can be contacted through the Noreen Tehrani Associates (NTA) website.