While being a research assistant at the Global Psychiatric Epidemiological Group this summer I had a couple very memorable moments. The one that sticks out to me most involved an interview I had where I had to really grapple with the division of researcher and therapist.
Working in a lab where you are conducting interviews on the most traumatic things that have happened to a person in their entire life it can sometimes be difficult to remember your job. Being empathetic human beings means when we hear someone’s having a difficult time with something or has had something traumatic happen you want to sympathize, empathize, and fix. In research, especially if you are an undergrad with no formal training, you have to make sure you do not cross a line and start regurgitating your Clinical Psychology course attempting to fix your participant.
This lesson was tested for me on one of my last interviews. The interview started out normally, gathering consents, making small talk, gathering the materials and splitting into our separate interviews. It came to the part of the interview in which we go down a list of traumatic life events and see if any of them have happened.
My participant said yes to one in particular and began their story in which my heart began to hurt. I could sympathize with certain parts and wanted to reach out, but knew it was not my place. I could see them struggling to vocalize their feelings and push forward with the story and I wanted to hug them, but again it was not my place. I heard them give me symptoms of a mental health condition and I wanted to diagnose them, yet again it was not my place…I’m also not certified to do that so that would’ve been very bad.
But as I sat there not knowing what to do it hit me, I HAD A MANUAL! I remembered my training and pushed aside my own feelings and words and remembered that to be a good researcher you cannot influence the participants answers or judge them. I needed to simply make sure this person was doing well now, that they had talked to someone, gotten treatment, and felt safe. With this I began to ask my questions and I could see my concern made them feel at ease and it also alleviated my worry and urge to fix them, they had gotten help, they had a support system, it was going to be okay.
This lesson is hard for many people and It was hard to be tested in the field this way but training can go a long way!