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Community psychology: Lessons learned from Route 91

This post is long; the links below will take you to potential topics of interest.

BEHIND THE SCENES: Call your IRB & delegate | Justify your statistical decisions

ON THE GROUND: Promote your study | Involve the media | Lead with helpful resources | Listen to community reps | Give results back to community | Advocate for your community

Our study about the Route 91 shooting represents a substantial addition to my lab’s research skills portfolio. Specifically, it’s my first foray into anything remotely resembling community psychology, in which researchers actively engage in helping to solve problems in an identified community. In this case, I thought of the Route 91 festival survivors (and potentially the broader Las Vegas community affected by the shooting) as the community. Below are the steps we used to conduct time-sensitive research in this community, with eyes both toward doing the best science possible and toward serving the community from which our participants were drawn.

0. In time-sensitive situations, call or visit your Institutional Review Board (IRB) in person and delegate work.

Because research cannot be performed without IRB approval, I gave my IRB a call as soon as a) I had a concrete idea for the study I wanted to do and b) support from my lab to work as hard as necessary to make it happen. In my case, that was the Friday after the shooting – and three days before I was scheduled to fly out of the country for a conference. Fortunately, I was able to get call our IRB’s administrative personnel, and Dax Miller guided me through the areas we’d need to make sure we addressed for a successful application. He also agreed to perform a thorough administrative review on Sunday so that I could get initial revisions back to the IRB before leaving. We performed the revisions so the study could be looked over by an IRB reviewer by Wednesday, who had additional questions I could address from afar so that the study could be approved by Thursday afternoon in Vegas (or early Friday morning in Europe). Without that kind of heads-up teamwork from the IRB, we simply couldn’t have done this study, which sought to look at people’s stories of the trauma along with their symptoms within the acute stress window of a month of the shooting.

I also drafted my lab to perform a number of tasks I simply couldn’t do by myself in such a short period of time. Three students provided literature to help me conceptualize the risks and benefits this study might pose. Two worked to provide a list of therapeutic resources for participants. Two others scoured the internet for various beliefs people espoused about the shooting to develop a measure of those. Yet another two programmed the study in Qualtrics and coordinated the transfer of a study-specific ID variable so that we could keep contact information separate from participants’ stories and scores, one of whom also drafted social media advertisements. A final student created a flyer to use for recruiting participants (including a QR code to scan instead of forcing participants to remember our study’s URL). Again, without their help, this study simply couldn’t have been done, as I was already at or exceeding my capacity to stay up late in putting together the IRB application and its supporting documentation (along with programming in personality feedback in Qualtrics as our only incentive for participating).

1. Social media can be your recruitment friends, as can internal email lists.

We spread our flyers far and wide, including a benefit event for Route 91 survivors as well as coffee shops, community bulletin boards, and other such locations across the greater Las Vegas valley. Nevertheless, my RAs used their social media to help promote our study with the IRB-approved text, as did I. Other friends took up the cause and shared posts, spreading the reach of our study into the broader Las Vegas community in ways that would have been impossible otherwise.

A number of UNLV students, faculty, and staff had also attended Route 91 (and all were affected in some way by the shooting), so we distributed our study through internal email lists. At first, I had access to send an announcement through the College of Liberal Arts’ weekly student email list along with the faculty and staff daily email. After word spread of the study (see the point below), I was also allowed to send a message out to all students at the university. Those contacts helped bump our recruitment substantially, getting both people at the festival and from the broader Las Vegas community in the study.

2. The news media extends your reach even more deeply into the community, both for recruitment and dissemination.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have multiple members of the news media contact me about stories they’re doing that can help put psychological research into context for the public. At first, I thought of contacting them as having them return the favor to me to help get the word out about my study. However, as I did so, I also recognized that approaching them with content relevant to their beats may have made their jobs mildly easier. They have airtime or column inches they have to fill, and if you provide them meaningful stories, it’ll save them effort in locating material to fill that time. Thus, if you’re prepared with a camera- or phone-ready set of points, both you and your media contacts can have a satisfying professional relationship.

I made sure to have a reasonable and concise story about what the study was about, what motivated it, what all we were looking at, and what the benefits might be to the community. That way, the journalists had plain-English descriptions of the study that could be understood by the average reader or viewer and that could be used more or less as-is, without a lot of editing. In general, I recommend having a good handle on about 3 well-rehearsed bullet points you want to make sure you get across – and that are expressed in calm, clear language you could defend as if in peer review. Those points may not all fit in with the particular story that the journalist is telling, but they’ll get the gist, especially if you have an action item at the end to motivate people. For me, that was my study’s web address.

As time went on, more journalists started contacting me. I made sure I engaged all of them, as I wanted the story of our study out in as many places as possible. Generally speaking, with each new story that came out, I had 5-10 new people participate in the study. If your study is interesting, it may snowball, and you never know which media your potential community participants might consume. The university’s press office helped in getting the word out as well, crafting a press release that was suitable for other outlets to pick up and modify.

The media can also help you re-engage your community during and after research has commenced (which I discuss more in point 5 below). They have a reach beyond your specific community you’ll likely never have, and they can help tell your community’s story to the larger world. Again, it’s imperative to do so in a way that’s not stigmatizing or harmful (see point 4 below), but you can help make prominent people whose voices otherwise wouldn’t be heard or considered.

3. Lead your approach to community groups directly with helpful resources after building credibility.

Another good reason to approach the media beyond increasing participation immediately is that having a public presence for your research will give you more credibility when approaching your community of interest directly. I recognized that after about a week of press, one of the participants mentioned a survivor’s Facebook group, and believed the time was right to make direct inquiries to the community I wanted to help. To that end, I messaged the administrators of survivors’ Facebook groups, asking them to post the free and reduced cost therapy resources we gave to participants after the study. I was also careful not to ask to join groups, as I didn’t want to run the risk of violating that community’s healing places.

Two of the groups’ administrators asked me to join the group directly to post them, and I was honored they asked me to do so. However, in those groups, I confined myself to being someone who posted resources when general calls went out rather than offering advice about coping with trauma. I didn’t want to over-insinuate myself into the group and thereby distort their culture, and I also wanted to maintain a professionally respectful distance to allow the group to function as a community resource. A couple of other groups said they would be willing to consider posting on my behalf but that the groups were closed to all but survivors. I thanked them for their consideration and emphasized I just wanted to spread the word about available resources.

All in all, it seems imperative to approach a community with something to give, rather than just wanting to receive from them. In this unique case, I had something to offer almost immediately. However, if it’s not clear what you might bring to the table, research your community’s needs and talk to some representatives to see what they might need. To the extent your professional skills might help and that the community believes you’ll help them (and not harm them), you’re more likely to get accepted into the community to conduct your research.

4. Engage the community in developing your study.

I learned quickly about forming a partnership with the community in developing my research when one of the members of a Route 91 survivor’s group contacted me about our study. I noted that she was local and had a background in psychology, thus making her an excellent bridge between my research team and the broader community. She zipped through IRB training and provided invaluable feedback about the types of experiences people have had after Route 91 (and helped develop items to measure those) along with providing feedback about a plan to compensate participants (confirming that offering the opportunity to donate compensation to a victim’s fund might alleviate some people’s discomfort). She also gave excellent advice about how to present the study’s results to the community, down to the colors used on the graph to make more obvious the meaning of the curves I drew. Consistent with best practices in community psychology, I intend to have her as an author on the final paper(s) so that the community has a voice in this research’s reports.

Though the ad hoc, geographically dispersed nature of this community makes more centralized planning with it more challenging (especially with a short time frame), I hope our efforts thus far have helped stay true to the community’s perceptions and has avoided stigmatizing them. In communities with leadership structures of their own, engaging those leaders in study planning, participation, and dissemination helps make the research truer to the community’s experience and will likely make people more comfortable with participating. Those people may want to make changes that may initially seem to compromise your goals for a study, but in this framework, the community is a co-creator of the research. If you can’t explain well why certain procedures you really want to use are important in ways the community can accept, then you’ll need to listen to the community to figure out how to work together. Treat education as a two-way street: You have a lot to learn about the community, and you can also show them the ins and outs of research procedures, including why certain procedures (e.g., informed consent) have been developed to protect participants, not harm them.

5. Give research results back to your community in an easily digestible form.

In community psychology, the research must feed back into the community somehow. Because we’re not doing formal interventions in this study, the best I think we can do at this point is share our results in a format that’s accessible to people without a statistical education. In the web page I designed to do just that, I use language as plain as I can to describe our findings without giving tons of numbers in the text. In the numerical graphs I feature, I’ve used animated GIFs to introduce the public to the layers comprising a graph rather than expecting them to comprehend the whole thing at once. I hope that it works.

I also posted my findings on all the groups that had me and engaged reporters who’d asked for follow-up stories once we had our first round of data collected so that their investment in helping me recruit would see fruit. It seemed like many Route 91 survivors reported being perceived as not having anything “real” wrong with them or being misunderstood by their families, friends, coworkers, or romantic partners. Thus, I tried to diagram how people at Route 91 had much higher levels of post-traumatic stress than people in the community, such that about half of them would qualify for a provisional PTSD diagnosis if their symptoms persisted for longer than a month.

6. Advocate for your community.

This is one of the trickier parts of this kind of research for me, as I don’t want to speak as a representative for a broad, decentralized community of which I’m ultimately not a part. Nevertheless, I think data from this research could help advocate for the survivors in their claims, especially those who may not be eligible for other kinds of compensatory funds. I only found out about the town hall meetings of the Las Vegas Victims Fund as they were happening, so I was unable to provide an in-person comment to the board administering the funds. Fortunately, Nicole Raz alerted me to the videos of the town halls, and I was privileged to hear the voices of those who want to be remembered in this process. Right now, I’m drafting a proposal based on this study’s data and considerations of how the disability weights assigned to PTSD by the World Health Organization compare to other conditions that may be granted compensation.

In essence, I’m hoping to make a case that post-traumatic stress is worth compensating, especially given that preliminary results suggest that post-traumatic stress symptomatology as a whole doesn’t seem to have declined in this sample over the course of a month. One of the biggest problems facing this particular victims’ fund is that there are tens of thousands of possible claimants unlike just about any other mass tragedy in modern US history, so the fund administrators have terribly difficult decisions to make. I hope to create as effective an argument as possible for their consideration, and I also hope to make those who are suffering aware of other resources that may help them reduce the burden dealing with the shooting has placed on them.

7. Use statistical decision thresholds that reflect the relative difficulty of sampling from your community.

This is a point that’s likely of interest only to researchers, but it bears heavily on how you conceptualize your study’s design and analytic framework when writing for professional publication. In this case, I knew I was dealing with (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime sample. Originally, I was swayed by arguments to define statistical significance more stringently and computed power estimates based on finding statistically significant effects at the .005 level with 80% power using one-tailed tests. My initial thought was that I wanted any results about which I wrote to have as much evidential value as possible.

However, as I took to heart calls I’ve joined to justify one’s threshold for discussing results instead of accepting a blanket threshold, I realized that was too stringent a standard to uphold given the unrepeatable nature of this sample. I recognized I was willing to trade a lower evidential threshold for the ability to discuss more fully the results of our study. To that end, I’m now thinking we should use an alpha level of .05, though corrected for multiple comparisons within a family using the Holm-Bonferroni method within fairly narrowly defined families of results to correct for multiple comparisons.

Specifically, for each conceptual set of measures (i.e., psychopathology, normal-range personality, other personality, well-being, beliefs about the event, and demographics), I’ll adjust the critical p value through dividing .05 by the number of measures in that family. We have two measures of psychopathology (i.e., the PCL-5 and PHQ-9), 11 normal-range personality traits, 3 other personality traits, 5 measures of well-being, and (probably) 2 measures of beliefs. Thus, if I’m interested in how those at the festival vs. those who weren’t at the festival differed in their normal range personality traits, I could conduct a series of 11 independent sample Welch’s t tests (potentially after a MANOVA involving all traits suggested there are some variables whose means differ between groups).

I’d evaluate the significance of the largest difference at a critical value of .05/11, the second largest (if that first one is significant) at a critical value of .05/10, and so on until the comparison is no longer significant. For my psychopathology variables, I’d evaluate (likely) the PTSD difference first at a critical value of .05/2, then (likely) the depression difference at a critical value of .05/1 (or .05).

That way, I’ll keep my overall error rate at .05 within a conceptual family of comparisons without overcorrecting for multiple comparisons. When dealing with correlations of variables across families of comparisons, I’ll use the larger family’s number in the initial critical value’s denominator. This procedure seems to balance having some kind of evidential value (albeit potentially small) with these findings and a reasonable amount of statistical rigor. Using the new suggested threshold, I’d have to divide .005 by the number of comparisons in a family to maintain my stated family-wise error rate, which would make for some incredibly difficult thresholds to meet!

There are other design decisions I made (e.g., imputing missing values of many study measures using mice rather than only using complete cases in analyses) that also furthered my desire to keep as many voices represented as possible and make our findings as plausible as we can. In our initial study design, we also did not pay participants so that a) there wouldn’t be undue incitement to participate, b) we could accurately estimate the costs of the study when having no idea how many people might actually sign up, and c) we wouldn’t have  to worry as much about the validity of responses that may have been driven more by the desire to obtain money than to provide accurate information. In each case, I intend on reporting these justifications and registering them before conducting data analyses to provide as much transparency as possible, even in a situation in which genuine preregistration wasn’t possible.

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