Let’s talk about mental health
Rachel Winny, technical director at CIR
To help support researchers and OSINT organisations in dealing with mental health challenges, and advance the conversation on mental health in open-source, CIR is sharing its internal guidelines on handling traumatic content. This is the first in a series of articles focused on protecting researchers, sources and research subjects.
A body lying in a street. A small shoe in the ruins of a bombed-out school. A hate-filled rant inciting violence. Open-source investigators seek to help bring accountability for these acts. In doing so, they expose themselves to the risks of vicarious trauma – an emotional response to the witnessing of traumatic events.
Vicarious trauma takes many forms. It might manifest as intrusive thoughts of suffering while lying in bed, feelings of hopelessness or guilt at the misery of others, a sense of dislocation from colleagues and family, or a sick feeling in the stomach. It can be triggered by work on a particular event or build up over time as the result of repeated exposure to traumatic images. You might feel fine until you don’t.
An increasing number of organisations and individuals involved in open-source research have been telling their stories, and sharing tips and resources, to help normalise discussions around mental health and support researchers build resilience. CIR hopes to contribute to that conversation with the publication of our internal guidelines on working with traumatic content. In doing so, we are grateful for the excellent work of Bellingcat, the University of Berkeley’s Human Rights Centre, the Dart Centre and others, from whom we have learnt much.
The guidelines set out protocols and tools to help minimise exposure to traumatic content and its impact. It provides guidance on the warning signs of vicarious trauma, as well as details of support available. Vicarious trauma affects people in different ways. Our focus is on supporting individuals to recognise their own risk factors and triggers and find coping strategies that work for them alongside organisational protocols that mitigate risk across the organisation.
We’re continually trying to improve and become a more trauma-informed organisation. Some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way:
Prevention is better than cure. We’re trying to get more proactive in managing exposure to traumatic content, integrating trauma risk assessment into investigation planning, taking trauma into account when setting taskings and workloads, building in mental health breaks and tracking the mental and emotional load our investigators take on.
It’s not just about traumatic imagery. It’s the combination of stressors from personal life, work pressures, negative news cycles and emotionally challenging investigations. So, we have an assistance programme for all employees and consultants which provides not just 24/7 counselling and specialised mental health support, but also a legal, financial and debt helpline, relationship counselling and, care and special educational needs advice.
While specialist support is available, often the first line of response sits with our own team members. We’re trialling a new training programme for team leaders and managers on how to hold conversations around mental health; lead debriefs on potentially traumatic events and identify and refer those who might benefit to specialist support.
Building trauma awareness into project workflows and systems can help take the load of individuals to manage their own self-care. Some of the steps we’ve taken include a “red, amber, green” graphic content warning embedded in our datasets, a tagging system that warns people of the type of content they might encounter before they look at it, disabling auto-previews from all collaboration platforms and setting up virtual escape rooms filled with cute animals.
We’re not there yet and there’s still a lot more we can do to improve. Every day, we are impressed by the dedication, resilience and integrity of our teams, and the rest of the open-source community, working to verify the worst of events.
Published on 16/11/2023