Some months back I read a circular issued to Oxford University postgraduate students on the potentially traumatic consequences of social science research. Promoting the availability of “Vicarious (Secondary) Trauma Workshops for post-grads participating in the university’s ‘Social Sciences Research and Skills Training’ programme,” the blurb explained that:
It is increasingly recognised that some social science research places exceptional emotional demands on the researcher, and that managing these emotional demands can be an essential component of the work. In particular, researchers whose fieldwork entails hearing about and engaging with the traumatic experiences of others may be at risk of developing symptoms of vicarious trauma (sometimes called “secondary trauma”) which can parallel symptoms of traumatic stress.
That social science research now comes with a health warning is testimony to the ascendancy of therapy culture in Western institutions of higher education.
Since the 1960s, universities have been in the forefront of promoting theories and practices that encourage people to interpret their anxieties, distress, and disappointment through the language of psychological deficits. Until recently, however, how students and faculty coped with their existential problems remained a personal matter. Today, the therapeutic outlook pervades campus culture so thoroughly that it influences how courses are taught, which topics are discussed, and how verbal exchanges are regulated. Teaching, some educators believe, can be trauma inducing, and so they have adopted an explicit “trauma-informed perspective.”
Outside of hospitals, the university has arguably become the most medicalized institution in Western culture. In 21st-century Anglo-American universities, public displays of emotionalism, vulnerability, and fragility serve as cultural resources through which members of the academic community express their identity or make statements about their plight. On both sides of the Atlantic, professional counselors working in universities report a steady rise in demand for mental-health services.