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Nicholas Addison Thomas

Director of Content Marketing, National Council for Behavioral Health

Minimizing Trauma and Maximizing Treatment for Migrant Children

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Left unaddressed, the impacts of trauma can be far-reaching. That’s especially true for children who experience trauma at a young age. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, trauma can contribute to behavioral health and chronic physical health conditions, as well as poor verbal skills and learning disabilities, in children. But recovery is possible with the right interventions.

Just ask Linda Henderson-Smith, National Council’s director of children and trauma-informed services. Under Linda’s leadership, the National Council’s trauma-informed services team engages organizations and communities around how to address trauma by delivering training, consultation and facilitation to enable a culture change process based on the National Council’s trauma-informed care model.

“We help providers and organizations create an internal and external culture that is compassionate, empathetic, warm, welcome and safe,” said Linda. “We assess the organization, create an action plan and assist them with the execution of that plan. We also provide in-person and virtual education to teams within organizations, enabling them to deliver support to those impacted by trauma.”

Addressing trauma is now the expectation, not the exception, in behavioral health systems. Every day, organizations are asking the National Council how they can be better prepared to offer trauma-informed care. Linda and her team work with providers like LaFamilia Medical Center in Sante Fe, New Mexico, to chart an evidence-informed path toward health and wellness.

“Trauma-informed care is an interpersonal process to improve mutual understanding and facilitate better communication,” said Jay Jolly, CEO of LaFamilia Medical Center. “Every interaction between human beings is an opportunity to build or tear down, and trauma-informed care gives us the tools and strategies we need to teach individuals how to build up.”

This teaching is in high demand, especially in cities like San Antonio where there is an increasing number of migrant families who lack access to care. Recently, Linda and her team led a series of trainings for Methodist Healthcare Ministries, a nonprofit that is creating access to health care for uninsured, low-income families in 74 counties across South Texas. They had some hard conversations about trauma and the role it can play in the lives of migrant children, one of the most vulnerable populations.

“Migrant children are more vulnerable because of their inherent environmental situation. Some migrant children are leaving areas with volatile political strife, poverty, and community or even domestic violence,” said Linda. “Experiencing those events in themselves is traumatizing. The voyage to a new country, where you are leaving everything you know and people you love, further compounds it.”

Migrant children face myriad challenges that threaten their health. Some are mistreated or abused upon arriving to the U.S., which can be physically, mentally and emotionally detrimental. Others may suffer with the trauma of simply leaving their homes as they are exposed to a challenging environment with an unfamiliar language and an unfamiliar culture. In many of these cases, migrant children may lack a reliable support system for recovery. Creating environments that are trauma-informed, welcoming and without judgment, and introducing protective factors, will enable children to heal and thrive.

“Building their protective factors and ensuring they have at least one healthy relationship with a healthy adult who will be there with them and for them, while also holding them accountable to be their best selves, is an important step toward leading a child to recovery,” said Linda.

Mistrust of behavioral health systems is another deterrent. Medical and behavioral health testing has been done on migrant families in the past without their consent, creating an intense suspicion for support systems, said Linda. Many more are afraid of being deported if they ask for help. Addressing this mistrust is essential for the successful delivery of trauma-informed services and supports.

“In order to fix this growing mistrust, there has to be an acknowledgement of the past, an open and honest conversation with the communities, as well as improved engagement with those communities,” said Linda. “Without those three things, it will be difficult to truly break the mistrust.”

Every day across the country, the National Council is using evidence-based interventions to create new futures for communities and those who live there. From historically marginalized populations – like migrant families – to individuals in rural areas with little access to care, hope and help is available.

Learn more about the National Council’s trauma-informed care training and consulting.