I spend a great deal of time speaking with professionals and organizational leaders about how to become trauma-informed. There is growing interest from professionals in schools, mental health organizations, social services, criminal justice and systems of care in how to become trauma informed. As I reflect upon what I am personally witnessing in our field of caring for those who have had a trauma narrative I believe there should be at least three aspects of becoming trauma-informed.
First of all, in dealing with those who have been impacted by trauma we must recognize that trauma is one of – if not the – core issue in their lives. That sounds obvious but over and over again I speak with so many of our systems leaders and professionals who are treating drug addiction, mental health issues, criminal behavior, emotional issues, relational issues and other difficult behaviors without asking the question, “What happened to you?” To treat any client who has a trauma history without acknowledging that history is not a holistic approach. For example, to treat addictions without understanding why the individual is using the drug (i.e. what are they attempting to cope with?) really doesn’t address the root problem. For so many of our social problems we find that some form of child adversity or trauma is in their history and very connected to their current behavior. There must be an understanding and acknowledgement of how their trauma is related to their current behaviors or circumstances.
Secondly professionals who deal with students or clients who are traumatized must create environments where clients are safe, able to process, not labelled or judged and able to deal with their trauma gradually with the guidance of skilled experts. It means that professionals should be trained and certified to be trauma-competent. They should know how to communicate with their clients and not retrigger them. They also should know what to do with specific behaviors that may not be understood without an understanding of the impact of a trauma narrative. There are lots of layers in anyone’s trauma experience and it takes a great deal of empathy, clinical skill, a consistent trauma lens and communication skills that are mindful of what their client is attempting to convey. Also, it is important that the physical environment feel very safe and conducive to the care of their clients.
Thirdly organizational leaders who hire trauma therapists and professionals need to provide the same care for their staff as their staff provides for their clients or students. The chronic stress of dealing with trauma is often traumatizing to professionals. This can be called secondary or vicarious trauma. It is often overwhelming to them. Research tells us that professionals who deal with traumatized clients often take on the same symptoms as those they are helping. Therefore, there needs to be environments where staff can process, where they have a way to access self-care and where there is a general system of support within their organization. This environment for staff needs to be intentionally designed and is reflected in how these professionals are treated by their leadership. It permeates the values, beliefs, approaches and nurture of staff that should reflect a trauma-informed organizational environment.
There are many other specific components to being trauma-informed, responsive and competent. However, if there is a purposeful set of approaches that have clarity on the impact of trauma to an individual, a safe environment where they can process and heal and organizations that are intentional about the support of trauma professionals, we can then provide systems of care that are effective, intact and can assist in true recovery from so many of our social ills.