News Focus
Oct 21, 2016

Ambitious Project Led by Trinity to Examine Some of Europe’s Most Trauma-Exposed Populations

From refugees to emergency service personnel, Context is a four-year research project into some of Europe’s most trauma-exposed populations.

Jamie SugrueScience & Research Correspondent
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

Context (COllaborative Network for Training and EXcellence in psychoTraumatology), a new research project funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme and led by Trinity and a number of European academic and nonacademic institutions, launched recently in the Trinity Long Room Hub. The Europe-wide project aims to conduct high quality research while building expertise in the growing area of global psychotraumatology.

The project will be led by the Chair of Global Health in Trinity, Prof Malcolm MacLachlan, Assistant Professor in the Centre for Global Health Dr Frédérique Vallières and Associate Professor Dr Philip Hyland of the Centre for Global Health and the National College of Ireland.

Working in conjunction with Trinity will be the University of Ulster (UU) and the University of Southern Denmark, as well a number of non-academic institutions including the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, the Spiritan Asylum Services Initiative (SPIRASI), the Probation Board of Northern Ireland (PBNI), the IFRC Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support, the Børnehus Hovedstaden in Denmark and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

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What role does culture, context and the traumatic life in and of itself play in terms of shaping or determining these different psychological responses?

In an interview with The University Times, Vallières spoke about the project’s origin and rationale, much of which is based on psychology: “Do people respond the same psychologically when exposed to a traumatic life event? We know that there is already individual variations in the way that people respond to trauma in their lives so I suppose it arose first and foremost to this kind of question – we don’t actually know the answer to that because we don’t have the research to support it.”

However, there is a second area that the new project hopes to explore. “The other question that we had is: What role does culture, context and the traumatic life in and of itself play in terms of shaping or determining these different psychological responses?”, Vallières said.

In attempt to answer these key questions, Context aims to examine the psychological status of individuals in three specific populations.

The first group are asylum seekers and refugees, with the majority being predominantly non-European. “Asylum seekers and migrants are obviously very key populations, especially now and in terms of this being a European-funded grant that was kind of a given”, Vallières said.

Most of the work with this group will be carried out in conjunction with SPIRASI, which is an organisation that caters for people who have been victims of torture, and also with the International Federation of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent Society and Psychosocial Support Centre based in Denmark.

The second population is comprised of emergency service personnel and humanitarian first responders. These are the people who are first on the scene in the wake of a natural disaster in a conflict zone, murder scene or road traffic accident. Speaking about this particular population, Vallières said: “I suppose the trauma doesn’t happen to them per se but it’s kind of this vicarious effect or exposure.” She also stressed the importance of looking at this particular group as there’s not as many resources put in place for police services or in the humanitarian sector for their staff. There also “exists a sense of bravado in these services whereby you wouldn’t ask for help”.

Perpetrators of childhood and gender-based violence is probably not a very popular topic, but a lot of them would have also experienced a lot of trauma in their lives

The final population included in this study is survivors and perpetrators of childhood and gender-based violence. Examining these populations will involve working closely with the Probation Board of Northern Ireland and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, and looking at the perpetrators of childhood and gender-based violence. Five children’s homes across Denmark will also be examined. “Perpetrators of childhood and gender-based violence is probably not a very popular topic, but a lot of them would have also experienced a lot of trauma in their lives”, Vallières said.

The population numbers in each group will vary. Between the PSNI and the PBNI, for instance, there are over 10,000 individual records. In other cases with smaller groups of individuals, their data will be more phenomenological, where the focus will be more on understanding their experiences. Each population group will be the focus of four PhD projects, which will represent one piece of doctoral work for a PhD fellow.

Coordinating such a large-scale study is no mean feat, but recruiting the university partners and non-academic institutions was easier than one may think. The Centre for Global Health in Trinity has worked with SPIRASI for almost two years, with many of their masters students completing their placement there. SPIRASI in turn worked very closely with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, as many of their clients are survivors of sexaul assault and rape, so they were also bought into the study.

This is research that they want done within their organisations that we’re assisting them with as researchers and academics

Academically, Trinity had done some work with UU in the past, who already had links with PBNI and the PSNI. Trinity itself had other links with the Red Cross, who then got involved in the project. Traditionally, the Centre for Global Health in Trinity has worked “almost exclusively in partnerships, focusing more on real world research than the lab”, Vallières said.

The project is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant. What’s really exciting about the grant, according to Vallières, is the mobility rule, whereby you have spend 50 per cent of your time in a non academic setting like a civil society or industry. Therefore the reason why some of the projects might not seem that interconnected is because they are actually driven by the organisations themselves. “This isn’t research we’re doing onto them, this is research that they want done within their organisations that we’re assisting them with as researchers and academics”, she says. Rules like the mobility rule exist to encourage cross country and intersectorial research.

The PhD fellows that they hope to recruit will likely come from a variety of backgrounds and will graduate with the skills that they need to translate findings into policy and practice. The ultimate aim of the project, if successful, will be to contribute to improving psychotrauma care in Europe.

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