As someone who has made a career out of asking questions, an interesting question arose this past week: when asking someone about a bad experience, can the questions you ask act as PTSD triggers?
PTSD triggers are a difficult topic. Triggers seem to vary from person to person. They can be images, words or sounds — famously, in the case of military veterans, the sound of a car backfiring.
With sexual assault,
Anything that reminds you of your trauma can act as a trigger. It could even be a particular smell or other sensory perception that you are not consciously aware of. Your PTSD can be triggered at any time when you encounter the right stimulus, and you may feel powerless to avoid the associated emotions and reaction.(3)
Arguably, before asking any questions about an event, one of the first things to ascertain is whether the victim has been diagnosed or feels affected by PTSD.(6) If they are, they probably need to be guided to a mental safe place before asking questions, or better yet, unless absolutely necessary, don’t ask the questions. The answers aren’t worth the pain they can cause.
Questioning sexual assault victims is a particularly difficult issue. Not only can the questions be PTSD triggers, they can also be perceived as part of “victim blaming,” a standard defense tactic in assault trials.(7) The City of Baltimore has imposed guidelines that the purpose of sensitive questions be explained to respondents before they are asked.
Victims need some explanation about why questions are being asked. If the purpose can’t be explained, then the questions should not be asked.
Finkleman’s book, Victim as Witness, chronicles damage done to victims of child abuse through the questioning process.(9)
The NYPD’s SVU this year has changed it’s protocol for interviewing victims in order to make questions more productive and valuable.(10) The approach relies heavily on non-specific, open-ended questions without pressing victims for basic details.
Bottom line: Questioning victims is a swamp, with a lot of ways to go wrong, cause damage, and facilitate lawsuits. What’s considered state-of-the-art in terms of questioning techniques is changing, and the new techniques aren’t suited to a standard survey format.
- Byrgen Finkleman, Victim as Witness: Legal and Psychological Issues, Garland Publishing, New York & London, 1995.