Interview: Professor Heather Turner
By Becky Rule ’76, ’79G
Sociology professor Heather Turner studies stress in groups that experience lots of it. From 1985-1992 at the height of the AIDS crisis, she worked in San Francisco. Later she studied stress in single mothers from rural areas. Currently she’s heading a study, funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, on children who’ve been victimized.
You started out in a kind of trial by fire, 40 in-depth interviews with AIDS caregivers.
In San Francisco, I interviewed people who were caring for friends and lovers with AIDS. The caregivers were saying things like, “It’s not only hard because I’m seeing him dying but I’m envisioning myself in the same situation very soon and I don’t know who will take care of me.” Or the caregiver who told me he’d been to 30 funerals in the last six months.
We talk about stress all the time, but as a sociologist, how do you define it?
Stress is a process by which environmental demands tax the adaptive capacity of people, putting them at risk for health problems. People tend to think of physical and especially mental health as something individual, very personal. But as a sociologist, I think it’s fascinating that part of what explains the differences in mental health are life circumstances rooted in society. Mental health is very much a social issue that stems from how our society is structured, as opposed to this really personal thing that everyone thinks goes on inside you.
Sociologists and epidemiologists look at the distribution of disease in a population. Typically we measure stress by asking people about events that might have happened to them—getting a divorce, losing a job, being a victim of crime, the death of someone close—as well as asking about ongoing hardships in their lives, difficulties in their marriage or job, financial problems. When these things pile up, people are affected both physically and mentally.
I’m interested in the social environment—the social circumstances people find themselves in, the conditions of their everyday lives that create difficulties.
Like AIDS. Or being a single, rural mother. Or being a child victim of violence. You’re asking very personal questions of the people in your studies. Do they resist the questions? Do they resent them?
You would be surprised. In the rural moms study, we had the impression they were glad someone cared enough to ask them. I think people who are going through a lot of stress appreciate that someone’s actually focusing on their problems and cares enough to study them.
In your interviews and phone surveys, you don’t ask about stress, you ask about the circumstances of their lives.
That’s right. This latest project is a national survey focusing on kids from birth to age 17. We ask about 34 different types of victimization. It’s very comprehensive.
An example of a question would be?
The bullying question is: “In the last year did any kids pick on you by chasing you, grabbing your hair or clothes, or making you do something you didn’t want to do?” We ask similar questions about experiencing robbery, assault, sexual victimization, witnessing parental violence, seeing violence in their communities, and so on. This latest survey is exciting because it’s a large study of 4,500 kids, so it gives us an opportunity to do detailed analyses of the effects of different kinds of victimization across developmental stages.
You didn’t make the calls yourself.
Oh, no. I couldn’t. More than 50 people worked on this project over six months. The calls were scripted. You establish that you’re legitimate researchers and it’s important work, and by talking to us the person’s helping us learn about the stressors people experience and how they affect families and communities.
How do you find your subjects?
It’s a random sample, scientifically polled. Not everyone we talk to has been victimized, so what we can do is make estimates of the proportion of children who’ve experienced these things. It’s a scientifically drawn sample.
Kind of like a political poll...
But in this case there has to be a child in the household in order to participate.
Do you talk to the children?
If they’re 10 or older. With the younger ones we talk to the parents.
It’s amazing that you can get people, kids, to talk about victimization.
The interview’s almost an hour long, so we ease into the more sensitive questions. We establish rapport.
What made you interested in this kind of research?
Mental health problems seem to emerge pretty early in life. The first indications are often evident in adolescence or very young adulthood. It occurred to me that if we really want to understand the social origins, the roots of these kinds of problems, we needed to look at people early in their life course. So we’ve been looking at children’s exposure to violence, various victimization experiences, stresses in their families, and how that affects mental health.
What surprised you?
How much victimization kids experience on average. We find that they’re experiencing bullying at school, abusive events at home, witnessing violence in the community. All very common experiences. With substantial implications for mental health.
All kids experience these stresses?
Not all. But we find that the average kid who has experienced any victimization at all will experience three different types of victimization in one year. I don’t mean of the same kind. I mean three different types. It’s pretty pervasive. It’s true that kids in inner cities are more exposed than kids in rural areas, but you’d be surprised at how pervasive it is.
It’s a pretty bleak picture, isn’t it?
It is. But I think it’s important work. I’m a basic researcher in that I’m trying to understand how things work—the types of stressors that kids experience and how they affect mental health. You hope that by highlighting the problems people will pay attention to them and then policies and interventions can be developed to help. You have to get people interested and alarmed before action is taken.
How can people find out more about your child victimization study?
They can visit our Web site at the Crime Against Children Research Center here at UNH.