When someone mentions “trauma”, most of us have an understanding that trauma occurs as the result of an extreme event or series of events that overwhelms our capacity to cope. We may know that trauma causes emotional and physical harm that is long-lasting and may be severe. Trauma may also be “caused or magnified by discrimination, marginalization, and historical and/or generational trauma”. Given the widespread impact of trauma, with studies indicating that between 60-70% of people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, it stands to reason that in order to meet the needs of survivors, our systems of care, education, and commerce need to be trauma-informed. By recognizing the effects, trauma-informed systems can help heal and resist causing additional harm.

“Trauma-informed” refers to all of the ways in which a service system is influenced by having an understanding of trauma, and the ways in which it is modified to be responsive to the impact of traumatic stress.

Still, we may have the question “why?” - why is it important to be trauma-informed. In reality, the overall health of our individuals, families, and communities are at stake.

-       Maine is experiencing a youth mental health crisis in our youth, with 20% of middle school youth and 16% of high school youth reporting serious thoughts of suicide in 2019. Maine also ranks number one in the country for youth anxiety.

-       Impacts from trauma are expensive - “The total lifetime economic burden resulting from…child maltreatment in the United States in 2008 is approximately $124 billion”

-       Trauma impacts physical and mental health and wellbeing. By recognizing and responding to trauma, relationships can help heal and promote wellness.

Trauma informed care promotes effective, efficient care across the continuum of services. While we most often hear the term used in health care, public health, education, and social service settings, it really is applicable in our workplaces and our communities as well. Trauma informed care recognizes the pervasive nature of trauma and the “potential paths for recovery” and integrates knowledge of trauma into policies, procedures, and practices. Finally, it seeks to actively resist re-traumatizing environments, dynamics, and relationships.

Shifting culture in organizations takes time and intention but it is critical that systems take on the challenge of doing so. The process of being trauma-informed is ongoing - individuals and organizations must learn about trauma and its impacts, assess policies, procedures, and practices to discover opportunities to shift the experience to incorporate new knowledge, and then commit to reflective practices to continually assess ways to maintain trauma responsiveness. “Creating a trauma-informed organization is a fluid, ongoing process; it has no completion date. Consumer demographics change across time, exposure to specific types of trauma may become more prevalent, and knowledge of best and evidence-based practices (EBPs) will continue to advance. A trauma-informed organization continues to demonstrate a commitment to compassionate and effective practices and organizational reassessments, and it changes to meet the needs of consumers with histories of trauma.”

Organizations that are not trauma-informed also risk diminished staff stability and sustainability. Those who serve vulnerable populations with high rates of adversity may be more likely to see staff who are impacted by the work they do, which can lead to burnout and higher rates of turnover. Staff experience trauma at the same rates as in the community and thus we must consider that 60-70% of staff members have also experienced trauma in their own life experiences. High rates of turnover due to exhaustion or impact have financial and service delivery implications for all organizations.

Being a trauma-informed organization must begin with leadership. It is a shift in culture as much as a shift in individual practice and leaders must demonstrate their buy-in and commit to changing policy and practice. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “desirable organizational change doesn’t occur by accident. It comes from steadfast leadership, a convincing message that change is necessary and beneficial for staff and consumers, and resources that support change.” Becoming trauma-informed does not stop with leadership, however, and, in fact, it incorporates every single staff member, volunteer, board member, and any other contributor. It’s a system shift that allows for all organizational members to participate.

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