As we close out Mental Health Awareness Month, we have a conversation with Andrea Perdomo-Morales, our
Chief Program Officer, about trauma-informed care.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines “trauma” as experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions. They go on to say that, “Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
In our communities, we have seen a trend that when people seek behavioral health support they have often times experienced more than one trauma.
A person’s reaction to emotional trauma can be complex and difficult to predict. There are many variables such as the person’s age (both current age and age when the trauma exposure occurred), social support system, culture, family history and general emotional functioning.
When trauma occurs it can affect the person’s fight or flight response. We may see that they can be more sensitive to certain smells or their environment as this could trigger thoughts of the event. People that have been triggered may experience heart palpitations, memory loss, shaking, insomnia, nightmares, and difficulty concentrating. Also, hyper-vigilance causes elevated levels of stress hormones, making it difficult for the body to regulate itself.
SAMHSA’s definition of trauma-informed care, involves three key elements: “(1) realizing the prevalence of trauma; (2) recognizing how trauma affects all individuals involved with the program, organization, or system, including its own workforce; and (3) responding by putting this knowledge into practice.”
In practice, trauma-informed care means that the direct service worker would be able to understand that each behavior or response that a person has is a coping mechanism that the person has learned over time. By having a trauma informed approach we are able to ask, “What happened to you?” versus asking, “What is wrong with you?” By shifting our focus to understanding where the person is coming from we are better able to support the person as they process the trauma and its impact on them. In our Behavioral Health services, we can utilize interventions that have been proven to be effective with people that have experienced trauma such as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
If we have a trauma-informed system (this includes schools, parents, caregivers, providers etc.), we are able to understand when someone is being triggered within their environment (meaning that a memory could have been activated and that triggered the person to react in a certain way). By having a trauma-informed approach we are able to be sensitive to first thinking how this “reaction” could be a trigger instead of making an assumption that the person is just simply acting out.
Many times when someone has experienced a trauma it can have the ability to rewire their brain causing difficulty with self-regulation, poor social skills, heightened aggression, difficulty in school, and more. When a trauma-informed provider in in place, they can assist the patient by working on strategies that help to stabilize mood regulation, find strategies to maintain consistent routines and identify positive coping skills to identified triggers.
Luckily, the Greater Kansas City area is very fortunate to have several trauma-informed care champions. There is Alive and Well Kansas City, Alive and Thrive Wyandotte County, several organizations, such as Vibrant Health, as well as school districts in our area that have made a commitment to learn and provide training to their staff and community about being trauma informed. The shift to asking, “what happened to you?” versus “What is wrong with you” is going to allow our community to feel more supported in seeking support services that they may need.
Andrea Perdomo-Morales, MSW, LCSW, LSCSW, is the Chief Program Officer at Vibrant Health. Andrea is a native of Guatemala and currently resides in Wyandotte County with her family. As a 1st generation Latina, she is the first in her family to graduate from college. Andrea holds a Bachelor of Social Work and a Master of Social Work from the University of Kansas. She is a member of the 2016/2017 Emerging Leaders Program sponsored by the Central Exchange, and a 2012 graduate of the Centurions program.