The Oprah effect has been sparked with this month’s exposé on childhood trauma highlighting an organization servicing orphaned children through Trauma-Informed Care. Many schools, hospitals and clinics are eager to provide the same level of service. Given that St. A, the featured organization, has been attuned to trauma since it’s inception 168 years ago, what does it mean for institutions taking their first steps today?
WHAT IS TRAUMA INFORMED CARE?
Trauma-informed care is a framework that emphasizes recognizing and responding appropriately to trauma and it's impact on individuals and the community. Organizations who are interested in transforming their services and practices to a Trauma-Informed Care model can work with consultants and trauma professionals to assess, review, and revise their policies, procedures and services.
IT'S A PROCESS:
Transforming an organization to a Trauma-Informed Care model is a multi-year process that requires a full community overhaul. Transitioning requires a full commitment from leadership on all levels and an understanding of why this is a worthy mission.
YOU ARE NOT BEING ASKED TO HEAL TRAUMA:
Any organization can choose to offer Trauma-Informed Care whether or not their services are directly related to mental health or development. This does not mean that institutions are expected to heal survivors' trauma. It does mean that there is an awareness, sensitivity, and ability to respond without causing harm and that there is a strong referral system to community resources with qualified mental health professionals trained in trauma.
A COMMON THEME AMONGST TIC MODELS:
Many Trauma-Informed Care models cite the necessity of providing preventative and supportive care for staff’s exposure to Secondary Trauma. It's noted that this should be a beginning foundational step for the process.
WHY IS STAFF SUPPORT FOR SECONDARY TRAUMA THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS PROVIDING TIC?
1.) DO NO HARM
The ethics of trauma treatment always includes the guiding principle of “do no harm.” The harm that is spoken of refers to the intentional, subtle, and unintentional harm we could cause when interacting with all people - not just survivors of trauma. Unsupported employees are increasingly likely to unintentionally cause harm. Providing on-going programming that increases awareness, manages stress and provides balance for their nervous systems will allow workers to drastically minimize their potential to cause unintended harm.
2.) HEALTHY BOUNDARIES
When an organization chooses to be Trauma-Informed, the expectation that employees will be able to respond appropriately to a person suffering increases and so does the frequency of individuals revealing their traumatic pasts. Most people want to help others, particularly those who are suffering; employees are no different. When faced with serious situations many goodhearted people will get pulled-in over their head with very little tools or support. Providing employees with support, guidance and tools on how to maintain their professional boundaries and make sense of the magnitude of suffering is imperative to limit liability and protect employees from vicarious trauma.
3.) PRIMARY TRAUMA
Professionals are humans too. Often times the people who work in helping, serving, or protecting professions are drawn to this work because of their own unresolved pain. It’s not uncommon for someone to consciously or unconsciously hope to help others in the similar situations they once were in themselves. That is natural. It becomes a challenge is when the person “fails” to be able to “save” someone or they are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of pain shared by students, patients or clients and project their own situation onto others. Sitting with coworkers in regularly held circles for the purpose of support is a necessary program for all entities.
4.) BALANCED CARE
Trauma-Informed organizations are not asked to provide healing for trauma but they are asked to respond effectively, reliably, and compassionately. They are required to find the right balance between too little a response and too much. Too little a response and people are neglected and not connected with proper care while too much of a response can bring undo attention, over-involvement, control or excessive force. When professionals are consistently supported with a place to reflect upon and process their role, they will respond in a more balanced fashion.
5.) SELF-UNDERSTANDING BEFORE UNDERSTANDING OTHERS
PTSD, triggers, and the after effects of trauma can be mysterious and confusing to both the individual and professionals. Each person has a very specific constellation of responses and triggers that are unique to them. Likewise, the elements that soothe them are unique as well. When employees are offered courses to explore their own life, experiences and responses it provides a healthy beginning point for them to better understand the people they serve which increases their level of empathy, ability to relate, and understand.
6.) COMPASSION FATIGUE IS REAL
Big-hearted people on a mission to help, serve and protect others will inevitably, at some point, experience various symptoms of secondary traumatic stress otherwise known as compassion fatigue. Symptoms can range from irritability, absenteeism, tardiness, decreased empathy, disorganization, anger, insomnia, and lack of cooperation. These arise because workers care, listen and empathetically feel what people are going through. This can happen in as little as one time of hearing about someone’s suffering. Considering how many stories one professional sees or hears each week, month or year it is understandable how compassion fatigue needs to be a primary concern for every organization serving the public.
7.) INREASED EMPLOYEE RETENTION
Professionals who dedicate their lives to serving others are often not in it for the money. They come to organizations and leave organizations depending on how motivated, rewarded, supported, and able to to do the work they are. Offering a program that tends to their specific needs and targets the development of skills that will grow them as human beings and have a positive impact on their entire life, is an organization people will be loyal to. On a larger scale, providing employees with support and protection from compassion fatigue will keep them being able to work in their beloved profession longer.
WHAT STUDIES SHOW:
Research confirms the prevalence of compassion fatigue across professional sectors, from judges to doctors, social workers, teachers and nonprofits workers. Studies also outline preventative and ongoing support for secondary traumatic stress as being the starting point for organizations wishing to adopt a trauma-informed care model.
The good news is there are solutions that work which employees enjoy. Forest Hughes & Associates offers a 12 module program that has been developed to address compassion fatigue in professionals who are exposed to Secondary Trauma at work. The model can be offered in various formats which makes it accessible for organizations as well as individuals.
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