When a child experiences trauma, the impact can be life-changing. In a Boston Reentry Study of men and women returning from prison, researchers found four in 10 prisoners in the Massachusetts state prison system saw someone killed as a child. While this statistic is shocking on its own, the weight of childhood trauma becomes more pronounced when you consider other studies, which have found that children who experience trauma are also more likely to suffer from asthma, depression, unemployment, substance abuse, and perform poorly on standardized tests.
So, what can we do with this knowledge? One local group, the Lucas County Trauma-Informed Care Coalition, focuses on ensuring that people who have experienced trauma receive needed empathy and care. According to Dr. Adrienne Fricker-Elhai and Alicia Komives, advisory coalition board members, the extra attention results in positive results.
Trauma-Informed Care challenges
Dr. Fricker-Elhai, who also serves as the director of the Cullen Center at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital, which focuses on assisting children who have experienced trauma, sees listening as the most effective way of helping.
“Sometimes trying to help people who’ve gone through trauma can be uncomfortable. [People] want to give advice, but don’t always know the advice to give, so the best thing we can do is say, ‘I’m here for you,’” said Dr. Fricker-Elhai.
To give Toledoans tools to better help children who have experienced trauma, the Lucas County Trauma-Informed Care Coalition hosts training sessions focused on making the community more trauma-informed. But training is only one step of the process.
Komives, a preschool social-worker for Toledo Public Schools, finds that one of the most difficult techniques for trainees to is de-escalation: “You have to get the person to calm down and get them out of the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode using specific strategies learned in the training.”
What does it mean to be trauma-informed?
“To me, [being trauma-informed] means the community—the professionals that are providing trauma-specific services, parents, foster parents, teachers, everyone who is working with children or even adults who’ve experienced trauma—understands what trauma is and how it is going to affect the individual,” said Dr. Elhai. “What may look like defiance or disrespect may actually be survival coping.” It is important not to take this behavior personally and become defensive, added Dr. Elhai, but to respond to it with empathy; otherwise, the cycle of behavior will continue.
Of course, that is easier said than done, which makes what the coalition is doing so important. Two-part training sessions provide trauma education with presentations by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and ODMH (Ohio Department of Mental Health). The training has two parts to educate people about how to provide trauma care: the first hour defines trauma, how it affects the brain, and ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), while the second hour teaches the group how to put that knowledge into practice.
Komives explains that people first need help with “recognizing what trauma looks like. It’s often seen as ADHD, behavioral problems, or oppositional defiance when there’s a lot of trauma going on.”
The coalition provides training to agencies on coping with sexual abuse, human trafficking, and natural disasters, while also working with homeless shelters, school nurses and domestic violence shelters.
The County Commissioners proclamation of May being Trauma Awareness month and endorsed Lucas County Trauma Informed Care Coalition’s work.
Over three years ago, Komives attended regional coalition meetings in her position as a social worker, concerning being trauma-informed. “As I was sitting there, I was thinking that we need this in Lucas County,” she remembers.
After recognizing a few people from Toledo at the meetings, she approached them with the idea of starting a local coalition. When the first meeting had over 40 attendees, they decided to host monthly meetings.
“Three years later, we’re still going,” Komives said.
Anyone in the community is welcome to get involved in the coalition, which meets at the United Way building on Jackson St. in downtown Toledo on the first Tuesday of every month at 2pm.