Ask A Therapist: Why Is Talk of Trauma So Prevalent Nowadays?

by Liz Covey

Question: Why is everything all about “Trauma” nowadays? I know some people have genuinely had terrible experiences, but it just seems like everyone is becoming a victim now.  I mean, don’t we all have to get through some hard stuff when we are kids or at some other time? Not trying to be insensitive, just genuinely curious if this is healthy.


Dear Reader,

I hear you loud and clear on this one, though from a slightly different perspective. There’s a lot of talk about trauma these days, without a lot of explanation.

The groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs), published in 1996, revealed how much more common, long-lasting and wide-reaching the effects of child trauma are in the average American population. These early adversities correlate to a startlingly high degree with diminished physical and mental health, general contentment, and success in adult life. Even early death.

So when we talk about “Trauma”, we are addressing the psychology of the grave impact of toxic stress on bodies, psyches, and brains, particularly in childhood, for this is when we lay down neural networks that we rely on for the rest of our lives. We are also referring to the whole network of things that support (or do not support) parents and children in their varieties of needs- economic, physical, social, educational and emotional- within a culture. Failure to have any of these needs adequately met in childhood results in high stress and adversity. Statistically speaking, high adversity in childhood directly correlates with worse adult outcomes in all major domains of health and happiness.

The reason we are hearing about this so much now, Reader, is that this is fairly new information. Though 1996 was a couple of decades ago, it is new in the sense that it is a completely revolutionary idea that upends much of our accepted thinking about health and social responsibility, and thus, it’s hard to take in, much less adapt our institutions to this new ethos.  In our “up by the bootstraps”, crime-and-punishment society, unique to most so-called “developed” nations, we tend to blame vulnerable folks for their conditions or circumstances. The trauma-informed care effort is something akin to a social movement, encouraging us to implement what we now know to be true based on decades of settled science when it comes to supporting our most vulnerable child populations. Not unlike the Climate Change movement, we need to heed Greta Thunberg’s advice and “Listen to the scientists”.

People who have studied ACEs would echo Ta Nehisi Coates in saying that “we cannot escape our history”.  This goes for large, marginalized groups as well as for any individual who is raised in a society that does not have ample safety nets in place for when one’s family group cannot adequately provide for their needs. In other words, this problem is relevant to all of us, not just those living within oppressed groups or in hard-pressed communities. There are those of us from seemingly nice, middle class families walking around with a lot of trauma.

Due to the slow pace of change, it makes sense to me, Reader, if you feel confused and unaware of what all this trauma talk is about. It would even make sense if you were to still apply the old crime-and-punishment logic to these scenarios today, viewing those who struggle or who fall behind as self-deserving, or as pitiful victims who aren’t worthy of assistance. That way of thinking is the out-going tide.

What we are going through at this moment in time could be described as the gathering of momentum of the wave of true change. But this wave has yet to crest, much less crash into being the new normal. As we all know, the powers that be do not like to cede control, or to adapt. It is a part of the nature of power to resist anything that threatens it. And that is precisely what is called for in the trauma-informed movement.

What trauma-informed care looks in real life is, in a word, change. Not talk, nor a smattering of staff trainings, but genuine innovation.

It is someone not being summarily sentenced to jail or prison time in Court based on criminal record or lack of resources (itself proof of a trauma history, nearly always), but instead, offered a diversion program, employment training, permanent housing, or substantial mental health and/or substance abuse treatment options.

Instead of suspension or expulsion for a student who is truant or who has behavioral problems, it is a compassionate home visit or a genuinely supportive family meeting with a social service liaison.

It is “color-blind” measures in the foster care system through programs where race and ethnicity are deliberately removed by decision making teams in a long-overdue effort to remove racial bias.

Instead of families being on their own to figure out their child’s needs, their public school plays a central role. Whether academic, child care, or otherwise, there are no-fee after-school or over-break programs, such as those offered at the impressive Aki Kurose Middle School, or a fully-staffed Health Clinic with thorough mental health services on site, such as at Walla Walla’s Lincoln High School.

It is free or deeply discounted child care, visiting home nurses, and flexible mental health programming that is non-shaming but truly compassionate and helpful.

To date, many systems claim that they have become “trauma-informed” all the while conducting business as usual. Seattle Police Chief Best can boast of an increase in officer trainings in mental health, but the Department must still reckon with police violence or insensitivity, and the shooting deaths of many, including an unarmed and panicked Charlene Lyles in 2017, a woman with well-known mental health issues who had made the 911 call herself. Staff trainings do not rise to the level of the change needed.

There is still a long way yet to go for us to transform our culture to being one where we really address the factors that cause child trauma, and to apply our resources to prevent it in the spirit of making improvements culture-wide. This will look like “giving handouts” to some, according to the old logic. But it will save and improve the lives of many, perhaps even most, to invest in our most vulnerable people, when and where and how they need it. The science to back up this claim is mountainous.

Marcus Garvey wrote that “[w]hen all else fails to organize the people, conditions will”. This is where we find ourselves today- the conditions indicate it is time.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

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