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Trauma-Informed Culture

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Linda Henderson-Smith

Director of Children and Trauma-Informed Services

The Importance of Creating a Trauma-Informed Culture

July 20, 2016 | Trauma | Comments
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I was extremely nervous, I had never seen a psychologist before. There were a lot of questions going through my head: Would I be judged? Would I be blamed for what had happened to me? Could they really help?  Why was I here anyways? I’d been coping just fine. I had a full time job and was excelling in school. So what if I had nightmares and angry outbursts. I don’t mind being labeled the angry black woman. I would rather that than the crazy black woman.

As I entered the psychologist’s office, all of my thoughts stopped as I was taken aback by the clearly unhappy receptionist. She tried to put a smile on her face when she greeted me, pointed me to the sign in board, told me to sit down and wait to be called, but I obviously was interrupting a gripe session with her co-worker. As she continued her conversation, I heard many complaints about clinical staff and management, about being overworked, underappreciated and disrespected. I was distraught. Would the same people causing her frustration really be able to help me? Would I be able to trust these people with my life story?

It was at that moment that I decided that I would finish the intake assessment, but would not be coming back for follow-up care to this provider or any other for that matter. It was just too scary. Unfortunately, as I began to speak to others who I knew who were also seeking help, the stories of their first experience in a psychologist’s office or behavioral health clinic was very similar. They felt weird having to ask for help and were quickly turned off by the staff and the culture of the organization.

I realize now that much of the culture and attitudes of the staff that I and others experienced were not the “fault” of the organization or its staff. It was largely due to staff feeling overworked and having to deal with difficult and traumatic situations daily, multiple times a day. This type of work environment can and often does cause burn out and secondary trauma for many staff, from the front lines to leadership. However, there is something that can be done.

According to SAMHSA (2014), one of the tenants of being a trauma-informed organization is having a safe, calm and secure environment with supportive care, for both staff and clients. This type of environment lends itself to making any person, staff or client feel respected, appreciated and most importantly safe. The National Council’s Seven Domains of Trauma-Informed Care highlight this critical area of focus. Domain 5 – Safe and Secure Environments – provides a framework for organizations, systems and communities to insure their policies, practices and procedures promote environments which avoid re-traumatization and re-victimization and which involve everyone in the organization in a coordinated effort to create healing and safe environments, while reducing staff and client turnover.

If the provider’s office I walked into would’ve focused on making the environment safe, calm and secure, I may have gotten the help when I needed it the most, not many years later. How many clients have decided not to seek the treatment they needed because of an organization not being trauma-informed? And bringing this down to sea level, here are some other questions you may want to ask yourself about your organization:

  • Are clients and staff treated with universal precaution regarding trauma?
  • Are staff and clients alike allowed to discuss what is going on with them without fear of judgment or retribution?
  • Are your processes and practices – from customer service to clinical and administrative processes ad practices – free from re-traumatization or re-victimization of your staff or clients?
  • Are your staff free from burnout and secondary or vicarious trauma?

If your answer is no to any of these questions or you feel like you could be addressing the questions better, the National Council’s trauma-informed care team can assist you in taking the next steps in becoming trauma-informed and moving towards where you want to be for your clients and staff.

My experience as both a consumer and a clinician within several community behavioral health organizations has highlighted the urgent need for organizations to become trauma-informed and ensure that staff and clients alike experience the safe, calm, and secure environment which facilitates healing and recovery. I have witnessed how becoming a trauma-informed organization has changed the lives of staff and clients. Are you ready to take a step forward?

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