Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Self Care and Vicarious Traumatisation when researching with refugees and asylum seekers

Claire Bynner is in the second year of her PhD, based in the Urban Studies department at University of Glasgow. Her PhD topic is Super-diversity, Social Cohesion and the Neighbourhood. She recently presented her research on the GRAMNet Open Day. This blog post has been put together by her and GRAMNet Co-convener Sarah Craig as a result of a GRAMNet workshop on Self-care and Research, an event held on the Island of Mull as part of Refugee Week this year. Thanks to Anna Beesley and Sylvia Morgan for valuable input and to all of the participants who made it an inspiring weekend.


On a chilly morning in May, sixteen of us set off from Queen Street station to the Iona Community’s Camas Centre on the Island of Mull to spend a weekend talking and thinking about self-care when researching with refugees and asylum seekers. As well as some anxiety about whether we would all make the train, how we would cope with the walk along the track to Camas (it’s not accessible by road), there was some self-consciousness about what we had signed up to. Spending a weekend on self-care might seem self-indulgent, and yet people were also aware that they needed to avoid “burn-out” in order to make their work sustainable in the long term.

How to hold that tension in our daily lives?  What we found was that simply communicating our ideas about this tension to each other, or talking about our worries and issues in a group context, was a great way to understand our common experiences and so to begin to question how we can do things better. Here are some thoughts which we gained from that time.

While we accept that self care is important, when it comes down to it we think it is for other people and rarely ourselves. There may be many reasons for this attitude, including awareness of others’ view of academia as an ivory tower, distanced from the real world, which can give rise to self-consciousness. This tension can be particularly pronounced for scholars who are also activists, or for those who were previously involved in the refugee and migration context in a different capacity, and who might recognise this ambivalent view of academia as a source of their own self-doubt.

The concept of ‘vicarious traumatisation’ came up at the workshop.  This is the idea that those people who work with victims of torture or other forms of violence can become traumatised themselves. Vicarious Trauma has been defined as the transformation of the researcher’s inner experience as a result of empathetic and repeated engagement with survivors and their trauma material (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995). Participants at the GRAMNet workshop talked about their experiences of repeated empathetic engagement that had some resonance with the idea of vicarious traumatisation albeit not as extreme. They described the effect of hearing distressing and painful experiences and in hearing these disclosures the significant trust and responsibility they felt had been placed upon them.  There were concerns about having the skills and ability to respond to these situations in the right way. Some people felt unprepared for the intensity of the disclosures. Others were concerned that they would not be able to provide an accurate representation of these experiences. They wanted to ensure that their research would have a positive impact but were aware of the difficulties of determining what the impact of their research might be.

The generally accepted rule is that professional practice and research requires emotional distance. Your role is clearly defined and empathy is acceptable but only to a certain extent. For many participants at this workshop, this form of distancing is a negation of the human and personal dimension of research as a social interaction. There was a broad consensus that it is neither possible nor desirable to remain emotionally detached. We need to accept that there may be a physical and emotional impact on both the respondent and the researcher and pay greater attention to issues of self-care and well being.

Self-care may sound to some like a middle class affection prompting the reaction ‘check your privilege!‘   Isn’t it a privileged notion to be concerned about yourself and your well being?  However, our discussions concluded that the potential cost of not practising self care is enormous. This is not about being overly precious, self indulgent or individualistic. It is about maintaining health so that we can respond well to changing socio-economic conditions and contribute in a sustainable way to the work we feel so committed to. Caring about others is not a form of martyrdom that denies the needs to care for ourselves.

In a multi-disciplinary network like GRAMNet there appear to be vast differences in practice and attitudes towards self care for researchers and practitioners.  Some sectors and academic departments take the issue far more seriously than others. There were examples of medical training in which students are asked to write reflective essays to discuss their handling of emotions through their practice.  This emotional skill development is supervised by senior staff and is seen as essential to professional development. In some academic departments, there is a working culture that promotes sociability for relieving stress and senior staff pays careful attention to the care and support of staff and students. Unfortunately, in many departments this is not the case.

Participants at this workshop expressed a deep sense of personal responsibility towards their respondents and through our discussions we began to see self care as a necessary and essential part of handling that responsibility well. One person suggested that we visualise our energy levels as a battery that needs to be recharged. Some interactions may drain the battery more than others and may take longer to recover from.  The aim is to keep our energy levels well topped up and recharged.

Some of the insights from Mull have been put together in an inspiring photodocumentary by Matthew Smith and Giuliana Tiripelli. See it here below:


Spending time with other postgraduate researchers and practitioners in the context of GRAMNet can be a great way to keep your battery charged. If you would like to continue this dialogue or discuss other issues of your own in relation to postgraduate research please join our Facebook group here.For questions or future information on the postgraduate group or on self care contact Anna: or Claire:

For further information on self care, click any of these links: Self care in relation to activismhuman trafficking and in researching sexual violence.


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This entry was posted on July 12, 2013 by in Blogs and tagged , , , , .
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