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Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

Oprah Winfrey and Healing from the Inside Out

March 20, 2018 | Healthcare | Time for Action | Comments
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If you don’t fix the hole in the soul… you’re working at the wrong thing. – Oprah Winfrey

Far too many children are growing up with a “hole in their soul.” Nearly half the nation’s children have experienced at least one or more traumatic events, including physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. The more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) a child experiences, the greater the risk for physical and emotional problems, well into adulthood.

To better understand the impact of childhood trauma and how to help children and adults heal, Oprah Winfrey traveled to her hometown of Milwaukee for a recent “60 Minutes” segment. She interviewed college student Alisha Fox, who was sexually abused by her father for 10 years, starting when she was four. Fox was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at age 15 and began trauma-informed treatment at SaintA, a member of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

“We might not be able to ever prevent the stuff that happens to kids,” said Tim Grove, SaintA’s clinical director, “but we are fully in charge of how we respond when we see it.”

Trauma-informed care recognizes that the same sensitivity that makes very young children able to learn language also makes them “highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency, unpredictably and violence,” childhood trauma expert Bruce Perry told Winfrey.

These negative childhood experiences are a powerful predictor of adult mental health. More than half of women in publicly-funded mental health and substance use treatment report a history of trauma, with their abuse most commonly occurring in childhood.

Trauma-informed care changes the equation. It begins by asking “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” Only then can we begin to address a child’s behavior, whether it’s out-of-control anger, poor performance in school or juvenile delinquency.

Trauma-Informed Care Works

Trauma-informed care is not new to the National Council. Karen Johnson, the National Council’s senior director of trauma-informed services, came to us from SaintA, where she received her foundational training in trauma-informed care. For the past seven years, we’ve led trauma-informed trainings and consulted with more than 700 organizations, including schools. And we’ve seen impressive results.

Burchell High School in Alaska saw a 66 percent drop in referrals for problem behaviors just one year after implementing trauma-informed classrooms. Students and teachers collaborate on expectations for behavior, students are taught the skills they need to master their emotions and learn from their mistakes, and administrators and parents support the teachers’ efforts. Schools nationwide are realizing the power of environments where all children can thrive.

“I’m a Survivor”

Ultimately, trauma-informed care is about creating healing relationships, recognizing and promoting resilience, and giving hope for recovery.

Fox makes it clear that the human spirit is indomitable and people who experience trauma are not broken. The more she tells her story, the stronger she feels. “At the end of the day, I think that I’m a survivor,” she told Winfrey.

Come to NatCon18 to learn more about this life-changing work. And consider applying to participate in the National Council’s Trauma-Sensitive Schools Learning Community. Every child who experiences trauma can be a survivor, and we have the tools to help.