The Rising Need for Trauma-Informed Care

Emotional trauma has been a big topic of late. Not only have citizens across the globe been affected by a deadly pandemic, but many healthcare professionals have experienced trauma in caring for them, assisting their families through separation and loss, and feeling helpless because they couldn’t do more. Violent attacks—both inside and outside of hospitals—have also had a profound effect on everyone involved

Individuals who have experienced trauma can have both mental and physical scars, even years after an event. And their symptoms can range from mild to debilitating. So healthcare providers are devising new training and tools in trauma-informed care in order to help uncover issues, understand each individual’s situation and provide the most appropriate care. 

The idea is to dig deeper and change the focus from simply what’s wrong with the patient to what has happened to them that may have contributed to their current issues.

While mental health professionals and social workers are familiar with the effects of trauma, a growing number of health care organizations are getting on board to train their entire staff and build a workforce that is well-versed in providing trauma-informed care

Why is trauma-informed care important?

In their comprehensive guide to the trauma-informed approach, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains that “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

Violence, abuse, neglect, separation from a loved one, poverty, discrimination, living with someone who is mentally ill and other factors are all traumatic events. They can be harmful to people of any age, but studies have shown that children exposed to trauma have a greater risk for chronic health conditions and health-risk behaviors. Children’s emotional development can be severely impacted

Some patients exposed to trauma will develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, ranging from poor eating and sleeping habits to smoking, or drugs and alcohol abuse. In turn, those behaviors can contribute to anxiety, social isolation and chronic diseases.

Trauma-informed care acknowledges that health care organizations and care teams need a complete picture of a patient’s life situation in order to provide effective health care services with a healing orientation. 

And there are potential benefits on all sides. The Center for Health Care Strategies notes that trauma-informed practices can improve patient engagement, treatment adherence, and health outcomes, as well as provider and staff wellness. It can also avoid unnecessary costs across the health care and social service sectors.

10 essentials of trauma-informed care

Changes are required at both the organizational and clinical level for this approach to be successful. The Trauma-informed Care Implementation Resource Center, sponsored by the Center for Health Care Strategies, developed this top 10 list of key strategies

  1. Lead and communicate about being trauma-informed 
  2. Engage patients in organizational planning 
  3. Train clinical and non-clinical staff
  4. Create a safe physical and emotional environment 
  5. Prevent secondary traumatic stress in staff
  6. Build a trauma-informed workforce
  7. Involve patients in the treatment process
  8. Screen for trauma 
  9. Train staff in trauma-specific treatments 
  10. Engage referral sources and partner organizations

It’s not a simple fix, but a long-term approach that can have sustainable benefits. More details about implementation can be found on the center’s website.

Hiring specialists in behavioral health

While everyone in the organization needs a better understanding of trauma and how to address it, there is also a growing need for psychiatrists, psychologists and other behavioral health specialists who are equipped to help patients affected by trauma and support these kinds of organizational efforts.

Social workers, for instance, have been tasked with understanding and addressing their clients from a more holistic perspective. A 2016 article in The New Social Worker magazine noted that trauma-informed care should cause a shift in thinking, and practitioners should seek to understand human behavior, coping mechanisms (both positive and negative), and any problems that result by examining traumatic events throughout life.

So, are we willing to look beyond the surface? This dig-deeper approach means viewing an individual’s current functioning in light of past events; not simply seeing present problems as needing to be fixed, but striving to understand why these problems exist in the first place.

It seems to be a worthy challenge.

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