The ISTSS 2014 Annual Meeting marked my fourth year as an attendee and presenter. In these four years, I have experienced firsthand the trauma community’s dedication to furthering advances in research, clinical intervention, and providing unwavering support for students and professionals.
Initially, I was intimidated to be in the same room (and presenting research to) as some of my trauma research heroes, and was taken aback by the acceptance and encouragement conveyed by the members of ISTSS. Each year, I look forward to rejoining the community that has provided me with invaluable feedback and inspiration.
Needless to say, I am incredibly honored to be the recipient of both the Outstanding Student Award and the Frank W. Putnam Trauma Research Scholar Award for 2014, and I will do my best to live up to the legacy of these awards by continuing to participate and contribute new ideas to the ISTSS community for years to come.
My research interests during graduate school have largely focused on the associations between trauma exposure and subsequent psychopathology among youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and specifically on the role of PTSD symptoms in the development of delinquency and callous-unemotional (CU) traits. The majority of youth in the juvenile justice system have experienced polyvictimization and rates of PTSD among these youth are much higher than in the general population. My master’s thesis, published in Journal of Traumatic Stress, investigated the role of PTSD symptoms in the development of callous-unemotional traits (Bennett & Kerig, 2014).
Using mixture modeling, we identified two groups of youth high in callous-unemotional traits, one group with comparatively higher levels of PTSD symptoms. These two groups, indicative of primary and secondary (or ‘acquired’) callousness (Karpman, 1941; Kerig & Becker, 2010), differed on various aspects of emotion processing including emotion recognition, emotional numbing and facets of emotion dysregulation.
The findings from my thesis support recent theory (Ford, Chapman, Mack, & Pearson, 2006; Porter, 1996) indicating that youth who are chronically victimized may develop a learned emotional detachment, or a mask of callousness that helps them to avoid revictimization while simultaneously increasing their odds of involvement in the juvenile justice system. This work builds on prior research by contributing to our understanding of the ways in which PTSD symptoms relate to delinquency.
Additionally, our results point to the importance of treatment interventions focused on emotion regulation for youth such as those in the juvenile justice system with PTSD symptoms who are so often overlooked for treatment.
My dissertation, now supported in part by the Frank W. Putnam Trauma Research Scholar Award, will expand upon our understanding of the intersection of PTSD symptoms and callous-unemotional traits for justice-involved youth by examining their psychophysiological profiles. Despite the critical need to identify and intervene with youth with secondary CU traits (high in both PTSD and CU), little research to date has elucidated how these youth might differ from primary CU youth beneath their mask of callousness. Psychophysiological research allows for the study of psychological reactions that cannot be gleaned from behavioral observations alone, as well those that are not consciously processed and thus unavailable to self-report.
The inclusion of physiological measures in our studies of secondary CU and primary CU youth promises to help us to determine whether these two subtypes represent two routes to the same destination, or whether they are different phenomena at their core. I will examine the levels and slopes of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system responding, specifically electrodermal reactivity and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (related to anxiety and emotion regulation), for approximately 350 youth using a series of multilevel models. Measurements were taken during a resting baseline, while viewing an emotionally evocative video clip, and in a recovery period.
Studies of callous-unemotional traits have only recently included adolescents, and research with this population that uses methods other than self-report continues to be rare. Additionally, most studies of the physiological profiles of individuals with PTSD have used adult veterans, and this study will contribute to the PTSD literature by focusing on a group of high-risk adolescents. Finally, this will be one of the first studies to examine psychophysiological responses of both boys and girls and thus will allow for the investigation of potential gender differences.
Although my program of research has focused largely on adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system, my interests have broadened to include topics related to the phenomenology of PTSD, such as the role of different peritraumatic reactions, comparing the factor structure of leading models of PTSD, and differences between individuals with PTSD who are high and low in dissociative symptoms.
These questions have contributed to, and been influenced by, my clinical experiences working with individuals with PTSD, largely military veterans. I will soon begin my clinical internship in the VA Healthcare System, where I hope to continue my research on the effects of trauma and the phenomenology of PTSD with veterans while also continuing to develop as a clinician.
As I begin my career I will continue to look to ISTSS for inspiration, support, feedback, and as an arena to foster my research ideas, clinical skills, and professional development. Students interested in trauma research or intervention like myself are incredibly privileged to have such an amazing organization in which to grow.
About the Author
Diana C. Bennett, MS, is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Utah, where she works with Dr. Patricia Kerig. In August, she will begin her clinical psychology internship at the Ann Arbor VA. Her research interests are in understanding the effects of different types of trauma exposure, polyvictimization, diagnostic phenomenology of PTSD, and associations between PTSD and other externalizing and internalizing symptoms such as aggression. Her research has been funded by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), the University of Utah Marriner S. Eccles Graduate Fellowship in Political Economy, and the University of Utah Clayton Award for Research on Underrepresented Populations.
Bennett, D. C., & Kerig, P. K. (2014). Investigating the construct of trauma-related acquired callousness among delinquent youth: Differences in emotion processing. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 27, 1-8.
Ford, J. D., Chapman, J., Mack, M., & Pearson, G. (2006). Pathways from traumatic child victimization to delinquency: Implications for juvenile and permanency court proceedings and decisions. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 57, 13-26.
Kerig, P. K., & Becker, S. P. (2010). From internalizing to externalizing: Models of the processes linking PTSD to juvenile delinquency. In S. Egan (Ed.), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Causes, symptoms and treatment. Hauppauge, NY: Nova.
Porter, S. (1996). Without conscience or without active conscience? The etiology of psychopathy revisited. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 1, 179-189.