Trauma-Informed Practice & Improving on the current standard
Trauma-Informed Practice has been an increasingly popular topic in the world of counselling and community work. For those not familiar with the term, it refers to a way of approaching others as though anyone we meet could be a trauma survivor or victim of violence. There has been a significant push toward Trauma-Informed trainings for workplaces, hospitals, and schools. From my perspective as a trauma therapist, this is an excellent development. It increases the likelihood that victims and survivors will be met with greater sensitivity and positive, helpful responses from the community.
There is, however, one notable way that I believe Trauma-Informed Practice could be improved upon. The majority of the literature that inspires Trauma-Informed Practice falls short by misrepresenting people's responses to adversity as “effects”. The language of effects is something that we’re all intimately familiar with in one way or another. It's very closely related to scientific reasoning, which is often concerned with cause-effect relationships - a perspective that works great for looking at the interaction between objects in the natural world, but not as well for beings with free will, such as humans. By this I mean that it is fair to say something like, "Rising global temperatures effect the polar ice caps by causing them to melt." As passive objects, polar ice caps are likely to melt as temperatures increase. It's very simple, straightforward, measurable science. However, I believe that inferences like the one just mentioned become problematic when applied to human beings. For example, you may have read somewhere, or heard someone say, “Depression, anxiety, and nightmares are all common effects of trauma”. Statements like that position people in exactly the same way as the poler ice caps in the example before it: as passive objects, rather than active subjects. This is inaccurate, because when forces act against the will and wellbeing of humans, they resist (even in subtle ways). When we look at people only through a lens of "effects", we don't see the purposeful things they do to survive and make it through bad situations.
From the current perspective of Trauma-Informed Practice, when someone experiences trauma, they are presumed to be damaged or disordered. We see this in terms like “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. There is no account of the things a victim or survivor did/does to create safety and survive during and after the traumatic experience. The actions and emotions that they display after the experience are often taken out of context and seen as evidence of their disorder. This is not encouraging of their dignity – something that I believe is of great importance - even if we don't think about it all that explicitly.
Toward a Dignity-Informed Practice
From a response-based orientation, overt efforts are made to account for how the victim or survivor created safety and minimized the harm they were subjected to. Even if someone is unable to outright stop the traumatic event from happening, we see that the person did the best they could in the situation. Furthermore, their actions and emotional responses are recognized as purposeful and context-bound. So what some might call “depression” in the wake of trauma or violence might be better understood as sadness about what happened, or dissatisfaction for how they were treated by others after. What may be labeled “anxiety” could be better understood as worry for their safety in similar situations going forward, or fear of judgment or rejection from people who don’t understand. I argue that these are very sensible, life-affirming responses – not symptoms of disorder. Acknowledging these life-affirming acts is very much in line with upholding dignity.
While I applaud efforts toward recognizing that our fellow community members may be responding to trauma and violence – which we should therefore exercise sensitivity and care around – taking our social responses a step further, toward acknowledging victim/survivor resistance is crucial. By moving beyond an effect-based misunderstanding of responses to trauma and adversity, we can be more effective helpers building more helpful communities. I see a response-based approach as being far more in line with upholding the dignity of all people - especially those in crisis.