Coping with Trauma from Research Content: Conducting Genocide Research by Melanie O’Brien

TW: Sexual violence, assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, genocide

I am a genocide, international criminal law and human rights scholar. My passion for this field of study started way back in high school, when I studied the highest levels of modern and ancient history, and then went through to university to study history and law. Learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, the Vietnam War and Communist China led me to ask the age-old question of ‘how can people do that to other people?’. Learning about all this injustice and atrocity led me to develop a strong sense of social justice. I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I love history; the natural combination of these two fields is international criminal law, which prosecutes perpetrators of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, requiring an understanding of history. Within all this, as I learnt more about gender inequality, I became more focused on women’s rights and sexual and gender-based violence against women, seeking to focus my research in this way with the aim of hopefully somehow making a change to the world that prioritises men in so many ways. I furthered my study of human rights and international law to specialise in the field, studying a Masters in Sweden and my PhD in England. Internships and clerkships at the UN and the International Criminal Court heightened my passion for working in this area. I ended up slipping into academia after my PhD, cementing my love of research, although I took some time out to work as a volunteer Human Rights Legal Officer in Samoa. Thinking back to those studies that motivated me towards this field, I have since gone on, as an academic, to write on Communist China, and the Holocaust, and on war crimes cases out of World War II and the Vietnam War.

For almost 20 years, my research has focused on sexual and gender-based violence against women in atrocity situations (e.g. war), and for 10 years of that time, has focused more broadly on genocide. I have noticed that, in the past few years, when I tell people what I do, the response has started to be ‘that must be really difficult’. Without a doubt, it is impossible to work in my field without a healthy dose of resilience. However, even a strong, resilient researcher becomes affected by traumatic, violent content after years of absorbing it.

Genocide studies

To give an idea of what I do, my research is highly empirical. Even though many lawyers in international criminal law focus solely on the law, I explore beyond that, and thus, in that regard, I am more like the typical ‘genocide scholar’ than the typical ‘legal scholar’. My research takes me around the world, exploring genocide sites, memorials and museums, and archives. For example, I have spent time at killing fields in Cambodia, Nazi death camps in Poland, torture sites in Argentina, and the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute in Armenia. I also conduct interviews with survivors, in Israel, Cambodia, Bosnia, Bangladesh, and beyond. On the page, I read survivor memoirs, UN and NGO reports, and court judgements and testimony, detailing horrific atrocities and human rights violations.

Most of my fieldwork is conducted alone. Thus, I am spending days immersed in genocidal atrocities, with no support other than the occasional Skype session with my partner, as time zones permit. If I am lucky, I will connect with other scholars or humanitarian workers (local or ex-pats) in the area, so I am able to have somewhat of a social life outside of the research. The few occasions when I can conduct fieldwork with other scholars, such as around the times of genocide scholar conferences, it is much easier to deal with. We are a support network, as we all experience the same confronting content, regardless of the geographic regions we specialise in. My genocide scholar colleagues are more than that: by virtue of our work, we become very close friends. Those post-conference dinners are crucial for us to detach from the content of the day, and remind ourselves of our humanity- a concept that is missing from what we study.

Research PTSD

The response to that statement, ‘that must be difficult’, is: yes, it is. Despite the years of conducting this research, I never cease to be horrified by the content of what I find, by the sheer cruelty that humans can impose on other humans, simply because of their religion, gender, nationality, race or other categorisation that differentiates that group from the majority. The brutality of the crimes is sometimes overwhelming. Sometimes I have to take a break from reading a report or judgment, because it becomes too much. In Bangladesh, some women I interviewed showed me videos taken in Myanmar of extraordinary, unimaginable violence against Rohingya. These videos were so explicit and gory, they would never be shown on the news. The images from those videos will also never leave my mind, and my stomach churns whenever these images resurface in my mind.

Another way that my work has begun to impact me is my feelings about my personal safety. The more I am exposed to male violence against women and just how pervasive it is, around the globe, in peacetime and conflict, the more I find myself being uncomfortable around strange men. My research has taken me to some countries that are extremely patriarchal, where women are treated like second-class people, and that is an incredibly challenging environment in which to be, let alone conduct research. Men invading private spaces where you should feel safe, or sexually harassing you, is not uncommon. It can be very uncomfortable, to say the least.

And my knowledge of violence against women means that some things affect me more than the average person. Earlier this year, my male neighbour assaulted his female ex-partner. He strangled her and beat her, on the driveway, in broad daylight, in front of us and some other neighbours. He only stopped because my partner intervened. It was incredibly violent and traumatic for me and my partner but seemed less so for our neighbours. I suspect this is because I know that strangulation is one of the most common forms of domestic violence, the most common way that women are killed in domestic violence, and the biggest indicator that, if a woman isn’t killed this time, she will be in the future. Because of this knowledge, I thought I was witnessing a woman being murdered. The other neighbours, unaware of this background to strangulation, were obviously distressed, but not so traumatised, at the time or afterwards. Thus, my research exposure means that personal experiences are more likely to traumatise me because of my in-depth knowledge around violence against women.

Seeking help

About five years ago, I thought that it was perhaps time to find some help, and sought out some professional expertise to help me deal with the traumatic content of my research. I used my then-university’s EAP, the Employee Assistance Program that I think most, if not all, universities in Australia, use, to provide their staff with a handful of counselling services. When I called, the service struggled to find someone who could provide PTSD service. It was a very unusual request; far apart from the more common issues of work stress, anxiety, relationship issues, or even depression. Eventually they found someone, and I went to an appointment. I think I only ended up going to one appointment because it was not a good fit for me. The therapist had had some experience treating military personnel, but spent a lot of the session talking about himself rather than listening to me. I felt that was not a good start, and thus did not pursue that further.

In the past few years, though, I felt that my PTSD was increasing. In particular, I returned from fieldwork in Bosnia and Bangladesh in late 2019, and struggled to deal with the seemingly petty issues of others, after having spent weeks interviewing women in Bosnia and Bangladesh, who had been victims of sexual slavery, forced marriage, and genocide. I knew this was not healthy, because it helps nobody to make the comparison of ‘well, at least it’s not as bad as genocide’ or ‘why are you complaining? People are suffering much more than you’. But, how to find a PTSD specialist therapist? In the end, I emailed a local refugee organisation for a recommendation. I explained that I was not a refugee, but that I was exposed to refugees and their stories and needed a specialist PTSD therapist. They kindly referred me to a specialist psychiatry service, and I have been in therapy since then.

How does therapy help?

One of the main things that I have discovered from the therapy is that I am angry. I am angry at authority. I am angry at the leaders who should be protecting people, particularly vulnerable people, but instead are committing horrific atrocities and human rights violations against these people. This anger, however, is not necessarily a negative anger. This is the anger that drives me to pursue my work, that motivates me to continue to provide a voice to victims who otherwise do not have one. This was a really positive discovery: that in fact, my anger is understandable, logical, and healthy. It just needs to be channelled into my work, and not impact my life outside of that.

Another crucial service that therapy provides is the outlet to actually talk about my research. By this, I don’t mean the way we talk about our research at a conference. Through therapy, I can say ‘I read a report that said X, and it made me feel Y’. Because, there is no other outlet through which to talk about the content of what we are exposed to; we do not even necessarily include really detailed content in our research output. It is far too graphic. Apparently, that in itself is a problem: that we have no outlet to talk about the graphic nature of the content and to process how we feel about it. In this regard, therapy is an essential outlet. I discussed being in therapy with a colleague who conducts long-term empirical research with victims of domestic violence. This colleague was also traumatised by this exposure, and likewise found therapy to be necessary and extremely helpful.

Need for research and targeted support

In the future, I would like to do research on mental health and well-being of genocide scholars; research that I have no doubt would help scholars who research other areas of violence. There is some work being doing in related fields, such as around human rights advocates. It is also known that, for example, war correspondents and crime reporters suffer trauma from their experiences. Some research has been done on trauma researchers; teaching psychology students about trauma stress; the impact of researching rape;  the emotional labour of criminological research; researcher responses to investigating sexual violence; secondary trauma among researchers; and there is an Australian-based service providing supervision for domestic violence and sexual assault researchers. Yet there is definitely a need for more research on this area. There is also a need for universities to provide more, focused services for scholars who research violence. The EAPs simply do not have the specialised capacity to provide therapy for this PTSD, and the handful of annual appointments provided is insufficient to help a scholar actually process extreme content, especially in the long-term. This type of research is so crucial: it helps us understand why violence occurs, how violence impacts victims, how we can prevent it, how we should punish it, and more. Most importantly, it gives a voice to victims and survivors of violence. Thus, we cannot afford to lose the scholars who are dedicated to researching such important social structures that have an extraordinarily negative impact on communities, whether local or international. Services need to be provided to ensure that those scholars who already hold a good level of resilience can work to rebuild that resilience when it becomes worn by over-exposure to violence.

Melanie O’Brien


Dr Melanie O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in International Law at the University of Western Australia, an award-winning teacher of International Humanitarian Law, Public International Law, and Legal Research. Her research examines the connection between human rights and the genocide process; and sexual and gender-based crimes against women in atrocities. Her work on forced marriage has been cited by the International Criminal Court, and she has been an expert panelist on genocide prevention for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Melanie has conducted fieldwork and research across six continents. She is on the WA International Humanitarian Law Committee of the Australian Red Cross, and is 2nd Vice-President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS). Melanie is on Twitter @DrMelOB. Outside of work, Melanie plays drums and guitar, embracing the joy that playing music brings and the excellent outlet for frustration that drumming provides!