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Understanding the Impact of Trauma: A Roadmap for Change

By Andrea Farina, Ed.D. on March 09, 2021 hst Print

For the first time in our collective lives, the concept of trauma and its collateral impact has likely crept into the psyche of most humans nationwide, if not worldwide. As we watch the news, peruse our favorite news outlet or even speak to colleagues, friends and loved ones about the pandemic, the dialogue often includes sentiments or concerns regarding the growing mental health concerns and associated supports necessary to address the impact this singular traumatic event has had on us.

While it may have taken this universally shared trauma to bring trauma-informed care to the forefront for some, the work of addressing trauma and its impact on students and families has deep roots in this country. To understand trauma, one must first understand that trauma is different for each individual.

In 2020, the work of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s Trauma- Informed PA Think Tank offered a definition that represents a holistic attempt to define trauma. This definition contends that:

Trauma results from an event, series of events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening. Potentially traumatic events may include those directly experienced by the individual, as well as witnessing such events as threatening to others (e.g., a loved one). Depending on the presence of resilience factors, trauma can create biologically-based responses and can have long-lasting, adverse effects on the individual’s learning, relationships, functioning, and mental, physical, social, emotional and spiritual well-being.

In simplified terms, what a person defines as “traumatic” is inherently personal to that individual, and the overall lasting impact depends on that person’s resiliency. There is no universal litmus test or formula to affirm a person’s trauma. We instead must acknowledge that trauma is real and contend that unhealed trauma is likely at the root of many of the challenges in this country, such as poverty, suicide, addiction and neglect.

A Framework for Change

If we ground ourselves with the understanding that trauma is real and has a significant effect on people’s lives, there then needs to be collective efforts to address the consequences of trauma and facilitate healing for those in need. Organizations and individuals within those organizations can adopt trauma-informed approaches to mitigate the influence of unhealed trauma and its collateral impact. Fundamentally, the adoption of a trauma-informed approach requires a commitment to:

  • Acknowledging the vast impact of trauma and exploring pathways for recovery.
  • Identifying the signs and symptoms of trauma in ourselves, friends and colleagues.
  • Embedding trauma-sensitive approaches into policies, practices and procedures within an organization.
  • Avoiding practices that re-traumatize individuals.

In addition to the aforementioned components of a trauma- informed framework, adopters of this healing-centered approach must also recognize the six essential principles that guide the implementation of a trauma-informed model. These principles include:

  • Establishing a physically and emotionally safe place for all members of the organization, school or workplace.
  • Creating a trusting relationship among all members of an organization, school or workplace.
  • Providing a safe space for peer/collegial support.
  • Creating a collaborative environment where goals of treatment and self-care are agreed upon.
  • Maintaining a safe space for those in need to be empowered and have a voice and choice.
  • Having a commitment to honoring and being aware of people’s cultural, ethnic background and gender identity

Transforming an Organization

The transformation of any organization on the journey to become trauma-informed requires a commitment to working through phases of implementation, which begins with trauma awareness, to trauma sensitive, next is trauma informed and finally being a healing-centered organization. This evolution takes commitment, time and strong leadership from within.

The initial stage of the transformation process is becoming trauma-aware. During this initial phase of organizational change, leaders must facilitate the evaluation of the current capacity and commitment of the staff to understand the impact of trauma on those who participate in the organization. There are easy ways for leaders of an organization to assess and enhance trauma awareness of staff, which include:

  • Conducting a self-assessment to determine strengths, resources and obstacles to establish a trauma-informed environment.
  • Providing awareness training associated with trauma-informed care, which could include terminology, definitions, impacts and prevalence of trauma, and causes of trauma.
  • Establishing an action team to explore trauma and how the attitudes and perceptions of current staff regarding trauma could potentially impact the way they see and interact with those to utilize the services of the organization.

These small actions create a foundation from which an organization can build its next steps toward phase two, being trauma-sensitive.

The second phase of implementation requires the action team from within the organization to evaluate the results from the self-assessment against the six principles of trauma-informed care. This analysis prepares the organization to make strategic efforts, which aim to develop the knowledge, skills and practices necessary to transform the work environment and daily work to one that embraces and reflects a commitment to trauma-informed care. An organization can take the following actions during this phase to support change:

  • Identify trauma screening tools that would be appropriate for the population the organization serves.
  • Identify potential resources necessary to address the potential unearthed impact of trauma of staff.
  • Provide staff with training on trauma-related skills.
  • Make basic information on trauma available to all individuals accessing the organization (staff and audiences).

Upon conclusion of the initial two phases, the process for change is well underway. Phases one and two provide a clear picture of the influence of trauma within the organization, the areas of strengths and needs in respect to alignment with the core principles of trauma-informed care, and should have equipped staff with foundational knowledge and skills necessary to embark on changing the organizational infrastructure and applying the principles in the workplace.

Phase three shifts the focus from theory to practice. It challenges staff within the organization to make observable and actionable changes to the work through the application of the aforementioned six principles into all aspects of their work. Shifting the culture to one that is trauma-informed in both purpose and practice can be achieved in the following ways:

  • Review and revise organization policies to include trauma- sensitive approaches and remove negative language.
  • Embed the key language (safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment) into organizational communication.
  • Take a universal precaution approach, which assumes that all participants who access the organization have been impacted by trauma.
  • Ensure that the physical workspace is welcoming, accommodating and exudes a “safe” space for all.
  • Adjust position descriptions that align with trauma sensitivity.
  • Incorporate opportunities for self-care, self-help and peer support into the workplace experience.
  • Make trauma assessment and treatment opportunities available for all who need them.

These actionable steps demonstrate to those who work within the organization and those who access its services that trauma and its impact are paramount. It exemplifies the commitment to trauma-informed and healing-centered practices becoming the normal mode of operation for the organization.

Reaching the final stage for change will not likely happen quickly. It takes a conscious and sustained effort to move an organization through the change process. Once the organization has achieved awareness, sensitivity and trauma-informed status, the implementation of efforts to sustain that commitment can be achieved by:

  • Adopting hiring practices that aim to recruit staff with knowledge of and expertise in trauma or who have themselves lived through trauma.
  • Establishing partnerships with community agencies to strengthen efforts around trauma-informed care.
  • Leaders within the organization modeling approaches of self-care and serving as coaches and consultants to staff throughout the organization.
  • Establishing interventions and support mechanisms to address the impact of secondary trauma.

Even once the leadership team stewards the organization to this point, the work must continue. The next steps are intended to ensure that the change efforts can be sustained. An organization should look to embed the following to maintain a healing-centered workplace:

  • Establish a process to obtain feedback from staff as well as those who access the services of the organization.
  • Establish a process to address unprofessional or inappropriate sentiments and actions by staff which do not reflect the mission of the organization to be trauma-sensitive.
  • Ensure that fiscal structures are in place to sustain ongoing professional development and trauma supports for staff.

While the framework above describes a streamlined process for creating a trauma-informed and healing-centered organization, the work toward the incorporation of trauma-informed practices is nuanced and challenging. Fundamentally, this work is grounded in empathy, healing and the ultimate belief that individuals can recover from the trauma they have experienced. Through the creation of organizations that are trauma-informed, those in need can gain healthy methods for recovery. The healing-centered practices within an organization aim to equip all those it serves with the skills necessary to let go of the guilt, insecurity, pain and fear their trauma has caused and enhance their resiliency and capacity to heal their trauma and the trauma of others.