While the study of trauma may seem to be having a moment in the sun, as Professor Orla Muldoon told Ryan Tubridy, she's about 30 years working in the area. Muldoon, the Founding Professor of Psychology at the University of Limerick, joined Ryan in what he calls the chipvan as the show paid a visit to the UL campus, where they had a brief, but fascinating conversation.
Orla started by outlining what got her interested in the area of trauma:
"What happens in academia is that, you know, you start sending papers and things to journalism and things and people say, 'Yeah, your argument is ok, but I don’t really think that would work if it wasn’t political violence.’ Then you get thick and you try to prove to people that actually it does work when it’s suicide and it does work when it’s brain injury, you know and different types of trauma. So that then got me into trauma as a wider concept, looking at trauma, different types of trauma and trying to show really that the social foundation of trauma is huge. So how other people respond to us if we disclose, or maybe we feel that we can’t disclose, even, our trauma and how that shuts us down."
Ryan wondered what typically stops people disclosing trauma. One of the big issues with victims telling others about their trauma is what they perceive as their stigma:
"They might not see themselves as a victim, they might see the person that died as the victim and they’re just somebody that saw it, so they may not identify at all as being traumatised. So they may not be willing to call themselves a victim. They may see the actions of another person as the issue and they don’t want to take the label on themselves. And then they don’t necessarily have support from other people who have similar experiences, who generally offer us the best support in life."
In Ireland, Ryan points out, there are all these older people who felt they couldn’t disclose the abuse that was perpetrated on them and so carried with them this awful trauma with them their whole lives.
"One of the things that we’re trying to show is that if you allow people to connect on the basis of the shared experience, with other people like them, that actually that can really be a very good therapy. So rather than individual therapy, if I can find other people like me."
Another thing that we can do, Orla says, is to destigmatise people who’ve suffered any form of abuse:
"We can start to say, do you know, when a woman is in a situation of domestic violence, let’s not think about how she deserved it or – and we still do have narratives where we kind of blame victims."
That narrative, Ryan suggests, needs to be flipped and all the blame – if that’s the right word – needs to be put on the perpetrator and not the victim, who should be shame-free, given that they’ve done nothing wrong. (This suggestion leads Orla to claim that Ryan would make a good psychologist)
"One of the things we’re trying to show is that those kinds of issues around blame and shame, that they matter to people’s physiology, so that it isn’t just that you carried the shame with you and it shuts you down, that actually that has consequences for your immune function, that that has consequences for your heart rate and a thing that we call reactivity. So it has implications for your physical health."
Psychologists, Orla says, are now trying to connect the psychological to the physiological. A key part of that is looking at the people who experience trauma but manage to remain very healthy – and these people make up the vast majority of people who’ve come through trauma.
"About 80-90% of people are resilient and we’re really interested in the physiological reaction of the resilient people because we think they might be responding in a different way and if we can figure out how they’re responding psychologically to be healthy physically, we can teach the other people how to, the people who are struggling, how to respond in a more proactive way."
Ryan points to what he calls our long national practice of brushing things under the carpet when it comes to hearing what victims of abuse have to say. And Orla adds that the people we don’t – or won’t – listen to tend to be the people who aren’t very powerful in our society. Looking at people who’ve waived their anonymity in sexual assault or child sex abuse cases, it’s often the case that they have shared their stories, but the response has been very dysfunctional:
"I think part of the national conversation has to be how it is we facilitate people telling their stories, for sure. And we do have to grow as a nation in how we respond, so it isn’t just the sort of personal growth, we’re actually trying to show also that there can be a form of collective growth."
The aim is that we all can be better. As Ryan puts it, society works better when we talk to each other, listen to each other and learn from each other. Wouldn’t that be something?
You can hear Ryan’s full conversation with Orla by going here.